The Half of It
High school drama meets Cyrano de Bergerac in Netflix’s latest original release The Half of It. Director Alice Wu’s first film in 15 years follows a familiar teen rom-com structure but instantly presents a deeper narrative within. Social outcast Ellie is roped into writing a love letter from jock Paul to popular girl Aster. But here’s where it deviates from the usual narrative: Ellie secretly has feelings for Aster herself. It’s a subversive love story and triangle with a different kind of edge – ultimately a journey towards self-acceptance with a lot of potential.
Multiple genre tropes are ticked, like the unpopular nerdy protagonist, the talent show, the big high school game, the build-up to one pivotal scene/showdown. However, this is a self-aware, non-flashy film that spends little time in an actual classroom. The small town of Squahamish, which nobody ever seems to leave, isn’t particularly romantic and possesses a moody colour palette too. It’s the fourth major character and represents something slightly different to each of the other three, which works well in the context of a coming-of-age story.
Ellie (Leah Lewis), the friendless daughter of a Chinese immigrant widow, goes from ghostwriting other pupils’ essays to crafting messages to her secret crush under the guise of her inarticulate but endearing new friend Paul (Daniel Diemer). It’s supposed to be one letter only, but naturally escalates as both try and woo Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Exchanging literary and art commentary, Ellie and Aster form an unknowing connection, but it’s the friendship forged with Paul that actually sits at the heart of the movie, entertaining all the while with ensuing dramatic irony. There’s definite chemistry between all the leads and satisfyingly, through each other, they reveal that there’s more to each teenager than the stereotype they represent.
With a breakout star who just so happens to be Asian-American, there’s something to be said about representation in the film. The fact that this – plus a thoughtful immigrant backstory – is a quiet inclusion (even integrating Mandarin dialogue) speaks volumes. Similarly, having LGBTQ representation without making a big song-and-dance about it is another respectful step in the right direction.
Despite its predictable-ish trajectory, The Half of It doesn’t buckle under the pressure of simplistic happily-ever-afters, but the downfall is its slow burn and rushed resolution. It attempts to grapple with a lot of heavy themes such as religion and ends up doing so half-heartedly. However, where the movie is most wholly authentic is in its coming-of-age triumph and honest depiction of navigating first love: it’s messy.
The Half of It is released on Netflix on 1st May 2020.
Watch the trailer for The Half of It here: