'The Half of It': Film Review

Netflix
Smart, charming and endlessly refreshing.
5/1/2020

'Saving Face' writer-director Alice Wu returns with another queer Asian American romance after a 15-year hiatus.

The new film The Half of It (Netflix) feels like few other teen movies. Set in the rural, socially conservative town of Squahamish, Washington, it doesn't show anyone shopping, or having sex, or using social media. Teenagers don't gather at school dances, but at church. Squahamish isn't Pleasantville; it's not an artificially wholesome suburbia outside of time. It's just another place where the adults don't need to tell their children to not expect too much from life — they already know.

It's debatable whether anyone even really falls in love. Our sensible protagonist Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) says at the start of her tale, "This is not a love story — or not one where anyone gets what they want," and she keeps her promise. By the end, what's remarkable is how much things have changed for the characters, with so few grand gestures. In its relative lack of incidence — as refreshing as the dowdy main character's getting to stay dowdy despite her only friend's desire to give her a makeover — it captures the tremendous growth that happens during adolescence when it feels like nothing is happening at all.

Written and directed by Alice Wu in her first film since 2005's Saving Face, The Half of It, which won best narrative feature honors at this year's (virtual) Tribeca Film Festival, is a contemporary update on Cyrano de Bergerac. Bookish Ellie writes love letters on behalf of a classmate, Paul (Daniel Diemer), to a girl they both like. Paul has no inkling of Ellie's queerness or their shared crush on Aster (Alexxis Lemire), so it's not long before he wonders if it's not the pretty and popular Aster who's right for him, but helpful and smart Ellie.

Meanwhile, artsy Aster, who's tired of vapid conversations with her dimwit boyfriend Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz) and the other fashionable girls, finds in her correspondence with Ellie-as-Paul a kindred spirit with whom she can finally discuss Kazuo Ishiguro novels and Katharine Hepburn movies.

There's more plot, involving Ellie's depressed widower father Edwin (Collin Chou), her teacher's (Becky Ann Baker) encouragements to go far away for college and Paul's experiments with... sausage-making, which he hopes will innovate his family's restaurant. But the most compelling reason to watch The Half of It is the care with which Wu creates her world.

With Saving Face, the filmmaker set a lesbian romantic comedy amid a Chinese American community in Flushing, Queens. Much of the dialogue was in Mandarin, and cultural specificities abounded. The Half of It takes place in another milieu where homosexuality is more theoretical than a fact of life, but where Asianness is only Otherness. Having settled in an overwhelmingly white town, Ellie and her dad are resigned to the casual racism that comes with being the only Chinese Americans around.

And amid Wu's many lovely turns of phrase is a smart wrinkle on the model-minority myth. Edwin's Ph.D. is trumped by his strong accent, leaving him shut out of the kinds of jobs he studied so hard for and languishing at home, socially isolated but understandably reluctant to continue risking rejection.

But Ellie also discovers through her letters with Aster and her conversations with Paul that her Otherness — even her loneliness — can be a blessing. "The good thing about being different is that no one expects you to be like them," she notes in a pleasantly husky voiceover, observing the pressures that Aster faces as a conventionally attractive girl with a religious father and the constraints of family tradition that Paul pushes back against. The cast is uniformly impressive in their naturalism, but Lewis, Diemir and Lemire — who have the luxury of actually looking like teenagers — are especially so for their young age.

In addition to letters, trains and bicycles chug their ways through the pic — motifs of a slower-paced life. But there's also enough clever use of technology — and careful attention to how different people text differently — that the setting still feels like a version of 2020. Ellie intuits, correctly, that Aster is the kind of girl who would enjoy the old-fashioned charms of a long letter. And when Paul attempts to wrest control of his communications with Aster, the popular girl is shocked that her sensitive pen pal would use so many emojis in his texts.

The Half of It may feel relatively uneventful because so much of the three main characters' journeys is internal: They open up enough of themselves to let others see their specialness, and in doing so gain the confidence to want more from life. Wu knows that audiences expect a big coming-out scene from Ellie and, in one of the script's most playful gambits, teases our expectations while flouting predictability. A broad, crowd-pleasing reveal isn't the style of a girl like Ellie, anyway, who goes "skinny-dipping" with two layers of shirts on. She's a girl who always does things at her own pace.

Production company: Likely Story
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire, Collin Chou
Director-screenwriter: Alice Wu
Producers: Anthony Bregman, M. Blair Breard, Alice Wu
Executive producers: Erica Matlin, Gregory Zuk
Director of photography: Greta Zozula
Production designer: Sue Chan
Editors: Ian Blume, Lee Percy
Music: Anton Sanko

Rated PG, 104 minutes