The original movies on Netflix have generally skewed in three vastly different directions. There are the obvious prestige plays — Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and so forth. Then there are the originals that feel like Lifetime or Hallmark movies, like The Knight Before Christmas or Secret Obsession. And then there are the genre plays, like I Am Mother and Bright. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that the latest movie to hit the platform, Alice Wu’s The Half of It, isn’t so easily categorized. The idea of a teenage version of Cyrano de Bergerac seems to lend itself to pure romantic fluff, but Wu imbues it with incredible depth and consideration. This isn’t a film that’s solely concerned with crushes — Wu folds in the highs and lows of living in a small, conservative town, the challenges of immigrating to a new country, and the thorny process of just growing up.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) runs a small business writing her high-school classmates’ essays for them, and endures racist taunts (“Chugga-chugga-Chu-chu!”) on her bike ride to and from school. Her father (Collin Chou), who immigrated from China for the promise of more opportunities abroad, works as a train-station master. He has a PhD in engineering, but it’s meaningless in a town that doesn’t see him as more than his accent. Though Ellie’s teacher, Mrs. Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker), knows who’s behind all the essays she’s reading, she encourages Ellie to apply to colleges beyond their (fictional) town of Squahamish, Washington. But Ellie can’t imagine leaving her father behind. Her status quo starts to change when she receives a different kind of commission: Paul (Daniel Diemer), one of the school jocks, wants her help writing love letters to Aster (Alexxis Lemire). The catch: Ellie is harboring a crush on Aster, too.
It feels sacrilegious to say that a teen romance succeeds by dialing down the usual teen-drama horniness, but what makes The Half of It more than just a retread of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play (or the updated movie re-imaginings, like Roxanne or The Truth About Cats & Dogs) is its investment in its characters, rather than its kissing. If the audience has no investment in Paul or Aster’s experiences, the story becomes one-dimensional. But because Wu, who also penned the script, takes the time to flesh out all three players in the triangle, the romance story becomes more complicated than the question of whether Ellie and Aster will finally get together.
What’s more impressive is that the details that make these characters feel so real are just that: details, rather than extraordinary. Aster’s beauty makes her well-liked at school, but she’s also expected to fit the cheerleader mold like the school’s other popular girls. Ellie is often referred to as “the Chinese girl” wherever she goes, and is so used to it that she doesn’t resist. The Half of It doesn’t have to be a “big theme” movie to comment on casual racism, or stifling individuality, particularly that of young women, in favor of outdated and patriarchal norms.
But Wu also pays attention to the smaller aspects of each character, down to how they text. Paul uses emojis with abandon, but Ellie and Aster are both careful about their capitalization and punctuation. As audiences get to know these characters’ quirks, the characters also get to know each other, making the inevitable reveal of the truth messy and protracted instead of cleanly cut.
Lewis, Deimer, and Lemire also make a wonderful trio. Unlike, say, the teens in Glee, they still look young enough that their gawkiness around each other feels genuine, not contrived. Paul may be a meathead — literally and metaphorically, as his family is in the sausage business — but he’s a sweetheart, too, and his burgeoning friendship with Ellie and her father is one of the movie’s highlights. He’s as eager-to-please as a puppy, even doing his best to mirror Ellie’s father’s cooking techniques.
And Lewis makes it clear that Ellie’s outsider status in town has less to do with her personality than the way the rest of her overwhelmingly white town sees her. Her first big high-school party, which she attends thanks to an invite from Paul, sees other students immediately talking to her and inviting her to play games, even though she’s not doing anything noticeably different. Ellie’s demeanor doesn’t really change as her friendship with Paul introduces her to more social circles. Instead, the people around her are overcoming their notions about her.
As Ellie states in the film’s opening moments, this isn’t a story where everyone gets what they want. The Half of Itfeatures romance, but it’s more of a teen drama than a rom-com, focusing on a coming-of-age immigrant story where romance is one facet of the experience. With The Half of It, Wu has crafted a love story that tackles love in all senses, not just romantic, prioritizing not just who gets to kiss who, but what each character hopes and dreams for. They’re so well-realized that watching The Half of It feels like the beginning of a new relationship. It’s exciting, enticing, and filled with hope for what comes next — in this case, seeing what else Wu has up her directorial sleeve.
The Half of It is streaming on Netflix now.
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