Like many teen movies, “The Half of It” begins with an animated illustration of the origins of love from Plato’s Symposium, much like that other queer cinema classic, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” What’s that? The last YA movie you watched on Netflix didn’t devote entire scenes to explaining the major tenets of existentialism through discussions on “No Exit”? From waxing poetic on Wim Wenders to cleverly chosen “Casablanca” references, “The Half of It” is a smart riff on “Cyrano de Bergerac” that celebrates friendship and self-acceptance over romance. It’s no wonder the film so effortlessly folds highbrow aims into an accessible coming of age story — writer/director Alice Wu knows her stuff.
Best known for her 2004 indie hit “Saving Face,” Wu makes her long-awaited return to feature filmmaking with this breezy and heartfelt teen comedy. Though both of Wu’s films follow young Chinese-American women coming into their queerness, “The Half of It” is clearly aimed at a younger — and broader — audience. While it’s tempting to imagine a more egalitarian Hollywood where Wu was allowed to develop a project with the sex appeal and multiple Asian women characters that made “Saving Face” so revolutionary, it’s thrilling to see her come out swinging with a surefire hit.
With its plucky teen protagonist and engaging storytelling, “The Half of It” is sure to hit big with Netflix viewers who made 2018’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” one of the platform’s most popular original films (and spawned a franchise in the process).
After the illustrated explanation of the origins of love, we meet Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a precocious high schooler who keeps to herself while running a lucrative side hustle ghostwriting papers for her classmates. Her favorite teacher, played by Becky Ann Baker (the “Freaks and Geeks” star is always a welcome presence in any teen fare), nudges Ellie to apply to a liberal arts college out of state rather than the state school she’s considering, for financial reasons and to stay closer to home.
A dutiful daughter, Ellie lives in a modest flat above the town train station with her widower father (Collin Chou), whose PhD in engineering from China is all but useless in the U.S. Wu includes the nuances of the immigrant experience with a delicate touch, showing Ellie weathering racist schoolyard taunts and stressful calls to the gas company that doesn’t understand her father’s accented English.
On her daily solo bike home from school, Ellie is clumsily accosted by Paul (Daniel Diemer), who asks for her help writing a love letter to popular girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie is reluctant at first, but remembers the gas bill and accepts. Thus begins an almost unbelievably erudite epistolary romance between Ellie and Aster, who clearly caught Ellie’s eye long before Paul entered the picture. Their letters brim with personal reflections and literary references, much like the film’s periodic chapter breaks, which are delineated by musings on the nature of love by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Jean Paul Sartre.
When dopey Paul can’t keep up, Ellie decides to school him in the art of conversation, and the two grow closer over games of ping pong and movie dinners with her dad. Paul may be slow, but he eventually picks up on Ellie’s true feelings for Aster. Though his initial reaction is not great, Paul soon becomes a model of loving allyship, encouraging and accepting Ellie’s queerness before she’s able to say it out loud.
Dramatically, “The Half of It” would have benefited from a more focused structure. The Ellie/Aster and Ellie/Paul stories feel silo-ed off from one another, like two distinct narratives running parallel rather than building to a cohesive crescendo. The literary chapter breaks, while cute, could’ve helped in this regard but end up feeling arbitrary. This split perspective may be due to the nature of any “Cyrano” riff, but one would hope having a pre-determined structure would help more than hurt.
“The Half of It” has lofty aims for its version of the classic tale — which it mostly achieves, albeit without much fanfare. In centering Paul and Ellie’s friendship, Wu nobly set out to make a rom-com where no one gets the girl and it all turns out alright. But after Ellie and Aster share a hot springs dip that is dripping with adorably innocent tension, it’s hard not to wish Wu had given us the queer fairy tale ending of our dreams. “The Half of It” is ultimately Ellie’s story, and she’s such a refreshing and lovable character that you can’t blame everyone for wanting a piece of her, even if it’s only half.
“The Half of It” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Friday, May 1.