At the start of Netflix‘s The Half Of It, the lead character Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) cautions that: “This is not a love story – or not one where anyone gets what they want”. The elevator pitch is a charming, queer-slanted teen coming-of-age update on original catfish Cyrano de Bergerac. Similarly to recent Netflix smash Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, Ellie uses a proxy to woo her popular classmate Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) – namely the inarticulate jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer). What actually unfolds is a touching portrait of a vital, meaningful formative friendship between a young lesbian and a straight male – while the gay guy/female bestie dynamic (typified by ’90s sitcom Will & Grace) has become a trope, The Half Of It‘s reverse gender pairing is refreshingly original.
Living with her widowed Chinese immigrant father in a white, God-fearing small town, the bookish 17-year-old Ellie makes cash by ghostwriting class papers. Needing extra funds quickly to prevent the power being cut off, she takes on a paid gig writing a love letter to Aster, who shares her erudite interests, on behalf of footballer Paul, who’s cute but won’t be troubling Mensa any time soon. As Paul gears up to meet Aster in person, it’s up to Ellie to school him Pygmalion-style on the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and German cinema (this is a film that wears its literary references like a badge of honour – there’s even an animated prologue on Plato’s Origins of Love – all while he’s unaware of Ellie’s true feelings towards the object of his affection.
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This is writer-director Alice Wu’s second feature following her 2005 Chinese-American lesbian comedy-drama, Saving Face, and although there’s a lot here that’s laudably progressive (not least putting an Asian queer character front-and-centre of her own story and having her be totally comfortable in her own sexuality: her coming-out isn’t treated as a tortured dark-night of the soul), less successful are the workmanlike American High School Movie moments. The weirdly chaste teenage supporting cast are archetypes, with no Booksmart expectation-subverting, and there’s even a time-honoured Big Talent Show where Ellie miraculously goes from social pariah to popular when she abandons her piano recital in favour of a twee, from-the-heart indie guitar number she’s written (in reality, wouldn’t the bullies just repeat their taunts to its tune?)
For all that Wu lines up the dramatic chain of dominoes, they never quite topple in order: a climatic church scene where facile quarterback Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz) proposes to Aster and the deception comes out is too sitcom-y to provide a satisfying pay-off. You wish Wu had leaned more into the moments that feel properly authentic. There’s a delicately-painted poignancy to Ellie’s relationship with her Casablanca-loving father (Colin Chou) whose PhD in engineering is rendered redundant in the USA, and a quiet anger in her having to phone the gas company for him because they don’t understand his accent that highlights how artificial some other aspects are.
Similarly, the central friendship between Ellie and Paul is drawn with nuance and care (and partly based on a similar relationship Wu had in college); and likable performances from Lewis and Diemer mean it’s a joy to be in their company. While Wu doesn’t quite stick the narrative landing, a rousing punch-the-air, feel-good ending more than makes up for it.
- Director: Alice Wu
- Starring: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer
- Release date: May 1 (Netflix)