‘The Half of It’ is a teen rom-com that charms despite its familiar love-triangle premise.
Kernel Rating: 4 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 104 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This coming-of-age rom com follows a young woman who is hired to write love letters for a young man to the object of his affection, who the young woman is also in love with. The young woman is the subject of bullying from other students because of her name and Chinese heritage; they yell at her and threateningly drive by her while she rides her back. There is also some physical violence, including a shove and a slap. Characters flirtatiously text with each other; some kissing; and a conversation about the experience of coming out. Some cursing and sexually suggestive language; underage high schoolers drink alcohol at a party; our protagonist becomes drunk and throws up.
By Roxana Hadadi
“The Half of It” is yet another spin on the classic Cyrano de Bergerac story, about an individual writing love letters in secret to another person on behalf of a client, and being pulled into a sort of love triangle as a result. Although it’s a familiar premise, “The Half of It” charms with its central trio, and the movie’s focus on questions about queerness and assimilation gives it modern relevance.
Set in the fictional Squahamish, “The Half of It” follows high school senior Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), who lives with her father, Mr. Chu (Collin Chou), on the outskirts. Mr. Chu is station manager of the local train station, and they’re the only Chinese family in town, and they’re barely making ends meet. For years, Ellie has written other students’ papers for a fee, and although her services are always in demand, she doesn’t have any friends. When it’s time for college, she’ll stay in town to be close to her father, although her English teacher is convinced she could secure a full scholarship to any school who would want her.
Ellie goes outside of her comfort zone to take on a new assignment when football player Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) asks her to start writing letters, on his behalf, to his crush, the perfect-seeming Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Paul and Aster don’t have anything in common, but Ellie and Aster do—they share a similar taste in books, films, and philosophy. And so Ellie puts her own unspoken romantic feelings for Aster into the letters and text messages allegedly written by Paul, pouring out her own affection under his name.
Meanwhile, Ellie and Paul become increasingly close. He dreams of breaking out of the monotony of his family’s butcher shop, and has developed his own “taco sausage” recipe that he hopes will shake things up. Ellie shares with him her father’s life story, about the systemic racism her father suffered as a Chinese immigrant, and how they ended up in this remote town. And as various other high school milestones pass—a performance at a school talent show, a party where alcohol flows freely—Ellie and Paul spend them together. The friendship they form, but how complicated it becomes by Ellie’s secret regarding her feelings for Aster, is the focus of “The Half of It.”
“In case you haven’t guessed, this is not a love story,” says Ellie when “The Half of It” begins, and that’s an accurate description of the film, which mostly focuses instead on Ellie’s and Paul’s friendship. Some of the most poignant moments in the movie are about their bond, and about the bond that Paul builds with Mr. Chu, who gently asks Paul whether he’s his daughter’s boyfriend. Also meaningful is Ellie’s understanding of her own sexuality, and how much more comfortable she becomes with being out, and Paul’s own journey in accepting his friend for who she is. Conversation topics with teen viewers could include Paul’s initial reaction to Ellie’s sexuality, in which he worries that she’ll go to hell for being a lesbian, and how the film complicates Aster’s seemingly “perfect life” by sharing how trapped she feels by Squahamish. The film develops each of the trio characters so well that viewers will really understand their differing motivations and personalities.
Although there are some scenes in “The Half of It” that feel a little forced to fit the teen-movie mold, the film mostly exhibits a fine balance between humorous, goofy antics courtesy of Paul’s exuberance and puppy-like energy, and more emotional, thoughtful moments between Ellie and Aster and Ellie and her father. A refreshing update to a familiar formula, “The Half of It” respects its characters and its viewers alike, delivering a love story that finds as much meaning in a platonic relationship as a romantic one.
“The Half of It” began streaming on Netflix on May 1, 2020.