Film Review: “The Half of It”
A literate coming of age story that puts a modern spin on the Cyrano Love Triangle. Add social media and stir.
Hasn’t the world seen enough Cyrano stories to fill an encyclopedia of hackneyed movie tropes for a lifetime? Maybe. . . that is, until The Half of It, a refreshingly smart high school coming of age/coming out film about the nerd, the jock, and the object of their affection, a lovely and brilliant girl oblivious to her own charms.
Set in the small town of Squahamish, a place one plans on leaving rather than returning to, 17 year old Ellie Chu is a gifted writer and observant introvert, living with her widowed father literally on the train tracks outside of town. He’s a station master and signalman who splits his 24/7 duties with his bookish daughter, who spends evenings with him watching classic movies while he presumably works on improving his English. In his native South Korea, he was an engineer, but without a language proficiency and especially since the death of Ellie’s Mom, the pair has mostly withdrawn from the world. Ellie make ends meet by writing essays, term papers and the like for her classmates, for cash, and seems stubbornly unperturbed by the jeering nickname she’s endured for years. One day, she is approached by a genial football jock named Paul Munsky who wants Ellie to write him a love letter to the elusive Aster Flores, daughter of the local Pastor who doubles as the Music teacher at the school. What begins as a purely transactional arrangement between Paul and Ellie (who couldn’t be more different) becomes something much deeper. As does the proxy connection Ellie forms to a girl who becomes much more than a writing assignment.
Newcomer Leah Lewis brings an acute level of gravitas to the role of Ellie, whose journey calls for the kind of introspection that begins in classic literature and cinema, transcending them both to discover a hidden yearning in her own soul. Hers may be the most dramatic character arc but it’s not a one-off by any stretch. Daniel Diemer’s performance as Paul Munsky contributes a gentle giant innocence that belies the jock stereotype that could have sunk this film in which everything pivots on a re-working of a well-worn trope. And then there’s the surprising, deeply felt and intellectual mindset of Aster Flores — played with a level eyed and lovely sensitivity by Alexxis Lemirea — and the result is a subversive charmer of a picture.
Written and directed by Alice Wu, The Half of It received the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and will hopefully receive the audience affection it so richly deserves on Netflix. It’s one of those movies that may seem small, even trifling at the time, until you find yourself smiling days later as the story continues to reverberate in your mind. As Ellie says in voice-over at the top of the film, “This is not a love story.” But as we begin to peer more deeply into these characters’ hearts while they struggle with the self-discoveries of youth and the unpredictable nature of desire, we learn that Ellie herself is not the most reliable narrator, and that we can surprise ourselves with our own capacity for Friendship, and yes, for Love too.
The Half of It is presently streaming on Netflix.
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