The Half Of It (2020)

13 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t review enough Netflix teenage romcoms, but I have seen my fair share, from the good (“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”) to the mediocre (“Tall Girl”) to the pretty-bad (“Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) to the laughable (“The Kissing Booth”). Why review those movies when I could review the one Netflix teen flick I think stands high above the rest? So let’s talk about Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever”…

I apologize—that’s a series, and I rarely review series. You want my review of that? Here it is: “Never Have I Ever” is the best Netflix Original teen romcom yet. There you go. Now let’s talk about writer/director Alice Wu’s “The Half Of It,” which is a step above “good,” which means it’s pretty darn good. 

“The Half Of It” is Wu’s queer take on the “Cyrano de Bergerac” story. And when I first heard that, I groaned because another Netflix teen romcom (“Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) already used similar elements, and not to good effect. But to quote the late Jean-Luc Godard, “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.” Thus, “The Half Of It” succeeds where the other movie failed. (I know there are fans of “Sierra Burgess,” and I don’t want to dump all over that movie so much, but it just didn’t work for me at all.) 

“The Half Of It” stars Leah Lewis in a star-making performance as shy, awkward, intelligent high-schooler Ellie Chu, whom her classmates pay to write their essays for them. Because she’s so good with words, a goofy football jock, Paul (Daniel Diemer), hires her to write a love letter to his crush, the pretty popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Though reluctant at first, she agrees to help him woo her. In the process, Ellie and Paul become good friends…which makes things very difficult as she also develops romantic feelings for Aster. 

That’s basically the gist of it. Even though many parts of “The Half Of It” feel familiar, the way Wu plays them does not. From the visually intriguing opening scene, which illustrates the idea of a “soul mate,” we already know we’re in good hands. Wu also more than enough care for her characters to make them more than the archetypes we’ve read about in young adult novels (or seen in young adult novel-to-film adaptations). 

“The Half Of It” is a film about desire. Ellie hasn’t felt anything towards another person because she’s so closed-off—and now, she experiences friendship with Paul and a growing longing for Aster. Paul feels something for Aster, even if he isn’t entirely sure what it is (though he’s pretty certain he’s in love—a lot of us remember what that high-school self-assurance is like). Aster is trapped in a constant loop with the in-crowd on campus, and thus isn’t allowed to express her true desire just yet. (Again, it’s high school—you do what you can do.) Aster kind of reminded me of Lea Thompson’s character in the John Hughes dramedy “Some Kind of Wonderful,” struggling between placement in the high-school hierarchy and truly expressing herself.  All three key characters are well-developed and also wonderfully acted. 

Wu’s script and direction, which I’m guessing (having not read many articles about the making of the film as of now) comes from a place of semi-autobiographical truth, are tender-hearted and result in numerous scenes that made me feel for these people. Another character my heart reached out to is Ellie’s father, played by a wonderful Collin Chou—even before his inevitable big speech in the final act (because these movies always have one), I loved this guy.

Speaking of speeches, there’s one scene that felt false to me. (And it’s not the scene involving a character’s homophobia—I think given the film’s small-town setting, there were enough subtle touches to set that up.) It’s a scene set in a church where our key characters each get a chance to give speeches about what they’ve lied about and what they’ve learned and so on. It’s a “courtroom-outside-a-courtroom” moment, which usually don’t work. However, I’m willing to give it a slight pass because I found the payoff to be pretty hilarious, resulting in my favorite line, “Now THAT’s divine intervention!” (That line, by the way, was delivered by an effective Becky Ann Baker as a teacher. As someone who grew up with “Freaks and Geeks,” it was great to see her in another teen flick.)

But even with that bit of forced melodrama, I still very much enjoyed “The Half Of It.” I loved what these characters had to say to each other (whether it’s about artists or loneliness or God or even something called “taco sausage”). I loved Leah Lewis in the lead role. I loved how Wu was able to turn the small-town setting into its own character. And with the exception of the church scene, I also loved how so many issues were handled with just the right touches. I haven’t seen Alice Wu’s previous film, “Saving Face,” made 16 years before this one. I’ll happily check that one out, as well as whatever Wu delivers in the future.

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