‘The Half of It’: Netflix’s Teen Rom-Com Eloquently Evokes Love Without Boundaries
Few romances open with a narration describing Plato’s theory on the nature of love and its notion that we are all seeking our other half. It’s a brilliant first touch in “The Half of It,” a Netflix teen love story that manages to surpass its genre. Unrequited affection is once again the name of the game here. An outsider falls for someone beyond their reach, but must help a higher up in the social order to attain that very same person. It’s refreshingly reimagined by director Alice Wu, who uses the idea a conduit for wider themes about diversity.
The story is set in Squahamish, a rural town in Washington State where everyone knows each other and you’re expected to marry your high school sweetheart. Such places do still exist in modern America but it’s the kind of setting where a high student like Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) feels like an eternal outsider. Highly intelligent and introverted, Ellie makes money on the side by writing her classmates’ English essays. She spends her evenings watching arthouse films with her dad Edwin (Collin Chou), a trained engineer from China stuck running the town’s only train stop. Ellie is approached by a football player, Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), who is madly in love with a popular girl, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Paul is nice enough but lacks the capacity to string more than two coherent words together. He begs Ellie to help him write love letters to the bookish Aster that will set her heart aflame. Ellie reluctantly agrees but soon it is she who starts having strong feelings for the object of Paul’s affections. In Squahamish it’s a rather dicey turn of events considering the town’s staunchly conservative, Catholic values.
“The Half of It” obviously borrows its formula from one of the great lovelorn classics, Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” But Wu has no pretensions of an adaptation or even update (the best of which remains Steve Martin’s “Roxanne”). This is a wholly original story about the insecurities of experiencing powerful feelings as a teenager, and in surroundings that are socially cramped. In the great John Hughes tradition, but with a much more inclusive, progressive style, Wu’s screenplay rings with the real way young people think, plot and slip. It is also an intelligent narrative that doesn’t condescend to its audience. Wu has no problem assuming there are high schoolers out there who care about Plato and Sartre, books and writing. The directing is so assured it’s a wonder to discover Wu has not made a film since 2004’s “Saving Face,” a drama about homophobia in the Chinese-American community.
The beauty of “The Half of It” is two-fold in terms of what it wants to say. As a romance it’s both familiar and subversive. We get the all too familiar surveys of the high school social order. Ellie is what has always been tagged as a “nerd,” but with an extra bit of discrimination for being Chinese-American. Brainless bullies like to drive by her as she rides her bike, calling her “chuga chuga choo choo.” Paul’s crush, Aster, is already dating another jock, the appropriately-named Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz), who naturally expects Aster to marry him because he’s popular and rich. But for Paul to reach Aster he can’t just depend on his rank as a football player, he has to struggle with the fact that he knows nothing about the books Aster loves so much. This isn’t a movie for teenagers only concerned with hammering in the need to attend Ivy League schools and reach financial success. It’s not one of those teen movies where everything eventually boils down to sex. It’s about learning to expand your interests and personality, about how getting a bit of culture can help you in more ways than one, no matter where you live. Aster isn’t imagined as a mere high school “hot girl,” she has a brain and you get the feeling good prose turns her on more than muscles. This is wonderfully captured in Wu’s voice overs where we hear the letters Ellie is composing for Paul, written with the authentic eloquence of a sharp young mind.
As a love story “The Half of It” grows into something uniquely keen and mature. While acting as Paul’s support, even waiting outside to make sure he does well on his dates with Aster, Ellie starts falling for Aster as she discovers they share the same interests. For Paul his crush is purely based on the fact that Aster is nice and “pretty.” The poor girl is obviously every alpha male’s idea of a suitable wife in this place. Wu directs some hilariously endearing misses as Aster is swept away by letters she believes are from Paul, but during dinner the guy cannot comprehend the book she brings him as a gift. Ellie starts like Aster out of sheer personality. It is she after all who is actually exchanging texts. Leah Lewis in a touching and profound performance brings Ellie to life as the ultimate outsider. She helps Paul while feeling helpless. She evokes intelligence and insecurity all at once. In a great scene Ellie and Aster enjoy a secluded hot spring together, and the tension is there but both dare not say a thing. Later when Paul begins to suspect what’s going on his reaction is conditioned religious speak, “it’s a sin.” There are still corners of this country where being gay means the complete opposite of equality or acceptance.
But Wu doesn’t hammer any of her messages in the style of a preachy film. Everything feels as naturally part of a secluded community. The people of Squahamish are not used to the idea of some of their children being gay. Paul can’t even fathom why he would need to learn about books to look attractive to Aster. And yet there are also good people all around like Paul’s mother, who accidentally opens his laptop to see a website about coming out but reacts opposite to what we would expect, or a teacher who tells Ellie she knows about her helping classmates cheat, but at least it means she doesn’t have to read terrible essays. But by helping Paul, Ellie is hopefully giving him an idea of how to at least broaden his horizons.
The ending of “The Half of It” also avoids the cliché we expect in this kind of movie. It has a happy ending, but more subtle and smart, even truer to life itself, than anything with cinematic fireworks. Everyone has learned something, even Trig. This is a film that stands out as a tribute to unrequited love, but instead of simply tugging at your heart strings, it hopefully teaches us some more valuable lessons.
“The Half of It” begins streaming May 1 on Netflix.