Synopsis – When smart but cash-strapped teen Ellie Chu agrees to write a love letter for a jock, she doesn’t expect to become his friend – or fall for his crush.
My Take – As we all know by now, films releasing on Netflix tend to vary in quality vastly. Where on one hand we have films like The Irishman and Marriage Story, that up their status quo in the very competitive industry, on the other hand, we have set of Adam Sandler produced and led films which will force anyone to question the integrity and the psychological condition of everyone involved in the production (expect Murder Mystery of course).
However, when it comes to the genre of romantic comedy, Netflix seems to have found the winning formula! With films like The Kissing Booth, All of the Boys I’ve Beloved Before, Set It Up and Always Be My Maybe, among many others, finding wide acceptance. Hence it was expected that their latest offering from filmmaker Alice Wu, which was honored by the Tribeca Film Festival with The Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature, would be on everyone’s radar, especially considering that it was a marketed as a unique rom com with a lesbian twist.
While a rom com set at a high school, can easily become something sappy or overly cliché, here, writer/director Alice Wu proves she can be very assertive in both her capacities, and successfully delivers a very relatable story about love, unexpected friendship and longing, while making a beautiful observation of relationships.
Also without ever pointing a finger at anyone’s background or beliefs, director Alice Wu dares to open up the conversation on religion and existentialism. But most importantly she never forces the LBGTQ aspect of the film. Instead the sole focus remains on being about love and what comes with it. Making this one a truly delightful film.
The story follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a shy and introverted, straight ‘A’ student, in her senior year, who helps her single dad pay the bills by ghostwriting essays for her peers. However one day, Paul (Daniel Diemer), a bumbling jock from the football team, with cooking aspirations, comes to her with a weird request – her writing services for a love letter under his name to Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the local pastor’s daughter, who he knows is far smarter than he will ever be.
Hesitantly, Ellie agrees, after all it is just one letter, and manages to spark a written conversation with Aster, but soon it becomes clear to Ellie that she has way more in common with her than the guy she’s helping out, which causes her to realize, for the first time, who she really is.
The film starts with a beautiful, artsy animation and excellent voice over work, guiding us into the mysteries of love at a very young age. This one is not your typical high school film, as it gives us characters that are easy to relate to because the film is more grounded in reality than your average rom com. That makes it easy to see ourselves in the characters and empathize with their struggles. While one might recognize the plot as overly familiar which has just been YA love story, here, director Alice Wu embodies the film with all the sweetness of a standard coming-of-age rom-com, while also waving in commentary on race, class, religion, and gender in a way that is rarely seen in the genre.
The film’s setting too seemed like a deliberate departure as it takes place in the fictional rural town of Squahamish, which is portrays as an ultraconservative area, where there’s a clear class divide, and pretty much everyone goes to church. Making Ellie’s relationships, her friendship with Paul, and love for Aster, feel even more uncertain, and ultimately more poignant, as they unfold against this backdrop. With director Wu pacing out her story with enough room to let these characters breathe and form meaningful bonds with each other really drives the drama right through the tender spots.
While the film gives us a queer Asian story where these are just part of Ellie’s identity, not the sole focus of the story. Instead of this blossoming into an eventual romance between Ellie and Aster, the film prioritizes Ellie’s relationship with Paul, and does so to the point that it minimizes moments of racism and homophobia throughout.
In the sense, Paul and Ellie work through their understanding of love together, which creates moments of deep softness in their friendship.
Especially evident in the scene, when Ellie panics during a talent show because her piano has been sabotaged, Paul encourages her to sing because he knows she’s hiding a lovely singing voice. Ellie returns that same care, comforting Paul in his moments of need. Making the scene where Paul realizes Ellie likes Aster, and comments about her being a sinner, hit really hard, especially considering it is coming from her only friend.
The film is also interested in posing big, messy questions about love and relationships that don’t have easy answers. It’s not afraid to paint relationships in shades of gray and trusts its audience to make their own conclusions instead of giving them all the answers.
The final act, however, descends much more into contrived territory, with people saying and doing things which feel very out of character for them by that point, just so that the film can work in numerous third-act clichés that feel a lot more disingenuous than the film started out as. The fact that it does kind of fall apart a little bit at the end, with resolutions that don’t feel very satisfying given the enormous build-up during certain character arcs, left me wondering whether a different climax could have been perceived. Despite the realism in the original one.
As for the performances, they are quite good. Leah Lewis carries this film with natural ease. Her voice is so important, since she basically narrates the entire story, but it’s the emotion that comes with it that truly lifts up her own physical performance. Daniel Diemer is a likable presence, and gets to grow as a character and show a vulnerable side you don’t easily get to witness in this sort of protagonist.
Though, Alexxis Lemire doesn’t really get a lot to do here, she manages to shine. In supporting roles, Collin Chou, Becky Ann Baker, Enrique Murciano, Wolfgang Novogratz, and Catherine Curtin are also very good. On the whole, ‘The Half of It’ is an earnest and perceptive high school romantic drama with some heartfelt writing and direction.
Directed – Alice Wu
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 104 minutes