It probably comes as no surprise that Netflix is in so many ways XO, Kitty similar to its sister films, the To all boys trilogy. Like the earlier rom-coms, the new spin-off is a nice, fluffy cupcake of a romance, with heroines who fundamentally believe in love and charming, sweet-natured suitors who repay that belief and then some.
But if the profession of To all the boys I loved before lay in how clearly Lara Jean and Peter were right for each other, no matter how much miscommunication or jealous exes were thrown their way, XO, Kitty takes a different tack. The fun of this one is in not knowing who should end up with whom, sighing all over the tangled web of possibilities that stretched out before his characters. The result is a romance that lacks some of the intense chemistry of its predecessors, but makes up for it with a fresh playfulness befitting the sunny heroine.
It comes down to
A sweet, pretty cupcake from a teen romance.
XO, Kitty is the fulfillment of a promise already made in 2021 To all boys: always and forever, when Kitty (Anna Cathcart) met a cute boy on a family trip to South Korea. Four years into franchise time, Kitty and Dae (Minyeong Choi) are still an item, albeit one divided by 5,000 miles of ocean. Eager to boost the relationship with their first kiss, 17-year-old Kitty transfers to the Korean International School of Seoul (conveniently and cutely shortened to KISS). That Dae’s school also happens to be where Eve, the late mother Kitty longs for, spent her own freshman year, is just the icing on the cake.
It is clear that things go sideways immediately upon her arrival in Seoul. The Kitty who so confidently orchestrated Peter and LJ’s relationship since high school is devastated when she discovers that Dae has a second girlfriend, Yuri (Gia Kim). She is even more confused when she begins to develop feelings for other potential partners. By the finale, the love triangle has grown into a love hexagon of sorts, with enough loose ends still dangling to drag us into a possible season two.
En route, XO, Kitty throws in every rom-com trope it can think of, with an endearing side of self-awareness. There are fake relationships and enemies-to-lovers and even a PG version of that thing where two traveling people have to share a single bed – all set against the photogenic KISS campus, with its cozy nooks, pastel furniture sets and forever trees in the full bloom of spring. (Try not to think too hard about the fact that the story is actually set in the fall.) “Life ain’t no K-drama,” a classmate scoffs at Kitty — just before Dae walks in with all the slow-mo zoom-ins , angelic lighting and ringing music befitting a romantic TV hero.
That XO, Kitty is set in an international school, which allows it to play the culture clash aspects of Kitty’s storyline with a light touch. She may be ignorant of Korean traditions like Chuseok (actually Thanksgiving “minus the genocide,” deadpan Yuri), but she’s hardly an Emily in Paris or a Ted Lasso in London when she’s surrounded by so many characters either from other countries themselves, or who are used to dealing with travelers and expats. The choice also neatly sidesteps more awkward conversations about different cultural conceptions of sex and romance, including in storylines involving gay characters.
But it also means we get a limited insight into Kitty’s view of the culture that surrounds her, aside from occasional comments like “Even though I’m half Korean, sometimes I feel like I’m zero.” A storyline about Kitty trying to feel closer to her mom by revisiting some of her favorite spots eventually turns into a more narratively propulsive but less emotionally resonant mystery about what really happened between Eve and her KISS bestie (Yuri’s mother Jina, played by Yunjin Kim).
XO, Kitty has more confidence with the adolescent drama that propels the story forward. By means of To all boys and Amazon’s The summer when I became beautiful, creator Jenny Han has demonstrated a knack for balancing intoxicating romantic complications with a deep well of empathy for the insecurity of youth. That’s true here again, with Cathcart and Choi as an aspiring gold couple forced to consider whether the puppy love of their tween years is enough to keep them through high school.
But as in so many teen shows, it’s the vaguely villainous characters that impress the most. Kim takes advantage of the loneliness that lurks just beneath Yuri’s icy mean exterior, and Sang Heon Lee steals every scene he stars in as Dae’s snobbish best friend Min Ho, whether bickering with Kitty in class or fussing over his extensive skin care routine in his dorm.
With so many characters and crisscrossing rides to keep track of, a few can’t help but feel underserved. Anthony Keyvan is the funny, supportive best friend of every anxiety-ridden teen’s dreams like Q, but his own romance with classmate Florian (Théo Augier) plays out as an afterthought to Kitty’s turmoil. (No wonder he grumbles that he’d rather “shove a pair of scissors into my ears” than listen to Kitty complain about her problems again.) Meanwhile, XO, Kitty is able to generate more chemistry in some of his pairings than others – and the ones that burn the brightest aren’t necessarily the ones the scripts invest the most in.
But the messiness is part of the show’s take on growing up. “A reason, a season or a lifetime. Every relationship fits into one of those categories,” a rejected suitor reassures herself. And while the friend he’s talking to seems skeptical, the series seems to take his point to heart. Not all the dizzying array of romances ahead will end in true love and happily ever after. XO, Kitty ensures that they are still worth enjoying.