Sure, teenagers’ proms and graduations have been canceled, and it certainly is difficult to get with their high school sweeties during quarantine lockdown, but at least they can take some comfort in the fact that there’s a slew of above-average teen-friendly fare to occupy their minds these days, right?
Following in the footsteps of March’s fantastic Banana Split and the recent To the Stars comes the Netflix original The Half of It, written and directed by Alice Wu (15 years after her first—and only other—feature, 2005’s Saving Face). Winner of The Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival (despite the event’s cancellation), The Half of It is damn near as sweet and warm and captivating as can be. A riff on the age-old Cyranoic tale of having someone else do your courting for you, the film offers up references to Sartre and Plato on its way to deftly trying to make sense out of the messy, messy institution that is teenage love.
Young Chinese-American actor Leah Lewis stars as Ellie Chu (loosely based on Wu herself), a straight-A student making a little money ghost-writing essays for her fellow students in her tiny town. The fact that her teachers are aware of the subterfuge and actually encourage her to keep it up (so they don’t have to read the actual essays the students would write) speaks volumes.
When galumphing jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) wants to hire Ellie to branch out and write love letters from him to the beautiful Aster (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie wavers, unable to come to terms that she herself may be smitten with her. But with money tight in the single-parent Chu household, Ellie reluctantly agrees.
It’s a simple-enough set-up to be sure, but what could have been a trite movie just going through the motions until the inevitable “big reveal”, instead sparkles with charm and wit and emerges as a beautiful, multi-layered film. It gets just about everything right along the way, from heavy stuff like sexual identity and unrequited love to trivial high school staples like the senior talent show and the alcohol-fueled after party.
Occasionally The Half of It gets a little too twee for its own good, as the kids debate everything from existentialist theories to “the better Hepburn”—I have a hard time picturing many 16-year-olds getting on their soapbox and waxing poetic about the virtues of Katharine over Audrey—but Lewis and Lemire make it work and keep us fully vested in their characters the whole way through.
“This is not a love story,” Ellie tells us early on, and she’s right, at least in the conventional sense. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that The Half of It may just be one of the more articulate and intelligent films about teenage love to come down the pike in a while.