The Half of It (2020)

“Love is being willing to ruin your good painting for a chance at a great one.”

With creativity to spare and an uncanny knack for spinning old yarn into something both fresh and unexpected, The Half of It channels films of the past to tell a story about the commonalities of young love in an uncommon, sometimes surprising way. It’s a quirky and awkward picture by design – after all, that’s how these young adults feel – and is not without its occasional headscratching script choices, yet that doesn’t totally undermine how The Half of It treats its burgeoning characters with the respect and dignity which they deserve. There’s nothing groundbreaking about its design, but in a rejuvenated genre still bound to old conventions, Netflix’s latest rom-com proves to be more serious and singular than most.

Modernized and thankfully distanced from the classic play Cyrano de Bergerac, The Half of It nonetheless follows a similar formula, albeit with a few tricks up its sleeve. Trading out 17th century Paris for the fictionalized Squahamish, Washington, the film’s precarious protagonist is Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis, giving my personal favorite breakout performance of 2020 thus far), an industrious, bright intellectual and the lone child of her widowed, immigrant Chinese father (Collin Chou). Ellie’s engineer dad hoped this small town might be a leap pad for his career, but as they say in the film, his broken English outweighs his PhD. It seems as if Ellie does most of his work for him. She’s a student, plays piano at church even though she’s agnostic, and runs a scheme at school as a paper writer for hire. This seemingly simple girl has depth.

Contrasting Ellie’s demure, stubborn nature is Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a doey-eyed, objectively unathletic football player and part-time sausage maker with a schoolboy crush on the most beautiful girl in school, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). He wants to write a love letter. Ellie needs money to pay bills. Aster feels bound to a life with her current numskull boyfriend Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz), whose wealthy family owns and runs town. The stars align and a letter is written. Then another. A few more surely won’t hurt. And as the trailer alludes, it’s because the closeted and queer Ellie is the one who really sees Aster. Who pines for her spirit. She’s the one experiencing authentic young love, and Paul becomes the close friend she vicariously expresses her emotions through. It’s a brilliant decision, leading to a friendship between unlikely equals and the kind of nuanced, queer love story few movies are brave enough to show. But, as Ellie narrates from the start, we should know that this isn’t a love story where the people get what they want. Here, they get what they need. It’s mature in that way.

There’s so much to admire about writer/director Alice Wu’s new-age love story. Having said that, there were a few left field choices that keep it from entering the highest ranks of its kind. It seems so silly to me that Ellie’s English teacher endorses her monetized cheating, only because it keeps her from having to read inferior papers from less prodigious students. It’s never believable. And while Ellie’s lethargic father helps to inspire her own narrative, ranging from Plato to classic films to emojis and self quotes, he’s too two-dimensional to feel human, although I still appreciated the dignified softness he’s given that too rarely characterizes Asian parents on screen. Wu’s script has its fair share of remarkable moments though, including a talent show performance when a small town star is born, and later when Aster takes Ellie for a hot spring dip where calm waters bubble and hearts race as a boombox plays Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.” These little moments are huge. The Half of It understands how to sit with and to stew those emotions, to speak from the heart and to listen without judgement, and while a tad uneven for my liking, the film shows love in all of its many forms. That alone is worth championing.

“I hope you find something good to believe in.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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