The Half Of It ****
Starring: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire, Wolfgang Novogratz
Director: Alice Wu
Since Love, Simon proved that LGBT+ teen movies were absolutely commercially viable, we have seen a spate of content featuring young people from across the spectrum made by bigger American studios. Now, from Netflix, appears The Half Of It, a teen coming-of-age movie that feels like a romance but declares clearly in its opening minutes is absolutely not.
Ellie (Lewis) is a high-achieving school geek who writes essays and assignments for her classmates for cash. When football jock Paul (Diemer) asks her to do a different type of assignment for him – to write love letters to Aster (Lemire), the girl of his dreams – she is sceptical, feeling that she knows nothing about love. But when she begins to notice that Aster is actually far more than just a pretty face, she agrees and begins a correspondence with her that sparks her own romantic feelings.
This is a classic narrative repackaged for a twenty-first century audience. Paul isn’t the sharpest tool in the box – his biggest passion is his development of the “taco sausage” – so as Ellie guides him via text message through dates with a girl who thinks he’s interested in art and literature, gags abound and much comedy ensues. All three characters are very well developed and though you’re absolutely rooting for Ellie and Aster to get together, Paul evolves from a ludricrous meathead to become a very sweet friend and ally.
This is also a teen movie that glorifies intelligence and wit. Ellie is incredibly cultured, clever and the narrative unabashedly positions her as a hero for it. Her intellectual ruminations on the nature of love are what seduces Aster, prioritising their scholarly connection over anything else. Also, the fact that Ellie is Chinese-American is wonderfully incidental, but her culture is still celebrated through her relationship with her father, with whom she speaks Chinese and with whom Paul develops a beautiful friendship as he learns to cook from him, despite the language barrier. With today’s young people prioritising diversity above all else, this a film in direct response to that, which is all the more wonderful for it.
Narratively this doesn’t reinvent the wheel with this umpteenth retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, but this is also absolutely one of the strongest teen movies released in recent years. Set in a sleepy American backwater, there is an Everyman quality about Ellie and her high school, which is deliberately average in every way. Though we see much beauty in their lives there – it is, after all, a well-produced piece of cinema from a major studio – its normalcy acts as a blank canvas to make it more relatable.
Though director Alice Wu has been noticeably absent since her directorial debut Saving Face in 2004, she clearly cements herself as a significant face in the industry with a strong cinematic voice. With so much teen content on the market, it would have been very tempting to populate this movie with overblown supporting characters and pander to archetypal tropes, but The Half Of It refreshingly avoids all of the above, with a streamlined focus solely on these three characters and their relationship. Ellie Chu is the romantic heroine we need and, like Simon Spier, will leave LGBT teens feeling that little bit more represented on screen. And Leah Lewis is glorious in the role, which will hopefully be the start of a much bigger career.
AVAILABLE TO WATCH ON NETFLIX NOW.