Director: Alice Wu
Stars: Leah Lewis, Alexxis Lemire, Daniel Diemer
Alice Wu understands the rules of both the romantic comedy and the youth movie. Combining both in The Half Of It, she has researched and employed the most enduring trope and source of dramatic tension that these genres lean on; The Lie.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a high school girl who has made a small living out of writing other kids’ essays for profit. One day, the dumbly sincere Paul (Daniel Diemer) accosts her while she’s cycling home to ask her to write a love letter for him. The obscure object of his desire is pretty and popular Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Paul doesn’t know a thing about Aster, but has decided she’s the one. He calls it love, Ellie calls it stubbornness.
In seeing Paul’s pathetic attempt at a letter, Ellie takes the ‘assignment’. When Aster writes back, The Lie is solidified. Ellie has to continue ghostwriting for Paul. The problem is she’s made him too smart and sophisticated. And, in the process, she has fallen for Aster herself.
Wu’s movie – new to Netflix – is cosily approachable. Warm colours; a quick wit; over, over, two-shot. It’s clean, crisp, modern but not flashy. This sensibility extends to her lead character. Ellie is an old soul in the body of a modern teen. She keeps up the pretense of writing letters over sending text messages because it’s more romantic. More romantic like the old movies that she watches with her father (Collin Chu; subtly excellent). Ellie sighs at the impatience of modern life, even as she conveniently takes instant payments from her peers. She even has a delightfully old-world duty in the town; changing the points at the railway track manually, directing the flow of gracefully clunking traffic.
For a while The Half of It rides the crest of an intellectual exercise. A thinker and evident grammar nerd, Ellie’s quandary over how one defines love keeps bobbing along in the background. Of course, things get complicated because emotions. Paul sticks up for Ellie when she’s harassed by the other students, in the process encouraging her to come out of her shell (or signal box if we’re to view the film literally). She’s the wallflower, he’s the dope, Asher is the secretly-deep popular girl, her boyfriend Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz) is the jock and godawful narcissist. Wu embraces these established stereotypes and uses them to her advantage. In fact, given how erudite Aster is in her letter-writing, her relationship with Trig becomes the film’s greatest puzzle. Until a comment on religion and conformity rears its head…
Wu’s middle-America small town has a strongly devout backbone, something which seems like arbitrary background colouring until the third act positions the film as an outspoken critic of a particular kind of narrow-mindedness. Even if Ellie and Aster could survive the inevitable Third Act Reveal, their community and its conditioning wouldn’t permit it. A wonderful riff on The Graduate helps to underscore this.
Of course, using the trope of The Lie means that audiences will predict and wait for the Third Act Reveal. Wu sticks the landing, but there are few surprises to be had outside of the religious commentary here. As part of her correspondence, Ellie makes a romantic game of quoting the greats. Throughout, it feels as though Wu is exceedingly fond of the same (the film is literally punctuated with quote cards), so much so that The Half of It feels both comfortable and (in spite of its occasional boldness) a little bit… safe. This is nice, respectful, nigh-on perfect Sunday afternoon viewing. A conformist, ironically. It’s far more preferable than sticking on ‘just anything’ because you’re being lazy, but it’s also a little deliberately without challenge or abrasion.
The Half of It is designed for those days when all you want is your favourite blanket, a good pillow, and something to get lost in, momentarily. We’re all going through something at the moment. Small comforts are a big deal. And while it could’ve done things a little scrappier, this one’s worth it.
And watch out for the weird Yakult product placement.