Not that anyone was asking for another modern variant of Cyrano De Bergerac told from the point of view of teenage protagonists, but following Sierra Burgess is a Loser, Netflix has released another film featuring teenagers doing the whole Roxanne thing, but where Sierra Burgess is a Loser ended up being a weirdly strange and problematic film (a shame too given that it was a starring vehicle for Shannon Purser), The Half of It, marking the first film in fifteen years from Alice Wu, is a wonderful little concoction that will hopefully find an appreciative audience on Netflix.
Written and directed by Wu, it would be so easy to think that Netflix is unleashing another YA adaptation on to the world given that so many of their teen movies and television series tend to be based on best selling source materials (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its sequel being the most high profile example, as well as 13 Reasons Why and Trinkets), but instead The Half of It is its own thing.
Scheduled to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, which obviously did not happen given the real-world circumstances affecting everything at the moment, there’s a good possibility that the film will find a larger audience thanks to Netflix being the distributor.
On the surface there appears to be very little here that you haven’t seen before, and given that it’s a teen movie dealing with a love triangle of sorts, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’re about to watch a variation of every other teen movie that has been receiving its premiere on Netflix in the past couple of years, but right away The Half of It feels different, with a tone and style that is more befitting a sweet natured indie as opposed to the glossy kind of teen comedy that has become a stock in trade with the streaming service in recent years.
Wu captures a rawness to small-town life that makes remarkable use of location filming instead of relying on backlots or the type of high school environments one tends to find in Los Angeles or New York-based filming locations. Lush green trees, fields and grey skies are everywhere to be found in The Half of It, but the film is never overcome with drudgery or dullness. The film has a sweet, good natured tone and instead takes it time with a gentle slow build, a character-driven story and lovely observational humour.
The comedy is sweet natured and good humoured, and there is even a sense of morality that creeps into the sphere of the film. Our lead character Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) makes money on the side writing essays for her fellow students, and yet she is not some opportunistic, snide character manipulating the system out of malice. An introverted sort who rides her bike to school, Lewis brings a quiet sympathetic dignity to Ellie that makes for a different type of lead character in a film like this as opposed to the preppy sort who dominates these types of films.
Lewis says so much at times by saying so little, Wu’s scripting and direction and Lewis’ performance relying so much on what is left unsaid, and on top of bringing a brilliantly subtle quality to much of the humour, the scenes between herself and her father (Collin Chou) and their usual routine of watching older movies at home make for some the loveliest moments in the film, not least when Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire fuels inspiration for one of the letters she writes for Aster in place of Paul, and which drives most of narrative.
The Cyrano de Bergerac story is of course a problematic one in this day and age given that it’s essentially about emotional manipulation, but The Half of It calls the characters out on their behaviour when the object of their affection finds out about the subterfuge. Aster (Alexxis Lemire) is one of the most popular girls in school, and while part of the type of a clique that one wouldn’t be surprised to be labelled ‘Heathers’ and lumbered with an idiotic boyfriend, she is instead a character of deeper thought and feeling, knowing when Wings of Desire is being referenced and being a fan of Kazou Ishiguro.
In fact, the film gets most of its jokes not from “hey, look at these two pretending to be the same person to get a girl to like them” but from the dynamic between Ellie and Paul (Daniel Diemer). Ellie being smart and Asian, and Paul being a white guy and not the smartest person in the world leads to some lovely moments of light comedy that never veer into nastiness. It would be so easy for the film to poke fun at Paul but instead it makes him lovable and sweet and gives us a wonderful running joke centred around his sausage making abilities.
Even better is that the film doesn’t resort to typical heteronormative dynamics. The Cyrano de Bergerac story and variations of it have frequently resorted to two men in love with one woman, or two women and one man, but The Half of It puts a legitimately modern, LGBTQ spin on the idea by having the film’s central character not only be Asian but gay and Wu gives Ellie’s story a realistic quality that feels both modern and real, but is delivered in a naturalistic way the feels wonderfully out of the norm compared to the frequent glossy teen fantasies that Netflix frequently release.
It’s a lovely film that never overdoes the angst, although when Ellie’s sexuality is revealed to Paul and Aster finds out about what they’ve been up to, the film isn’t afraid to deal with harsher character elements that unfortunately do feel real, but it does offer a happy and poignant ending that subverts out expectations yet again by not playing the obvious cards and being something that is both real, but also feel-good.
The Half of It is now available to stream on Netflix.