Alice Wu’s sophomore feature is a kind-hearted effort that balances a bevy of inspirations, even if it’s too on-the-nose for stretches.
It’s hard to make a first film, but sometimes it’s even harder to make a second one. This is especially true if you’re writer/director Alice Wu, who follows up her debut film, Saving Face, after 16 years with Netflix’s The Half of It.
Like Saving Face, Wu’s sophomore feature is an intensely personal story about a gay Chinese-American girl trying to live her truth. The Half of It follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a hyper-intelligent high schooler stuck in a small town where the idea of a fun time is spinning the tires of your pickup truck in a mud pit. She has a side hustle where she writes other students’ essays for cash, which leads her to orchestrating letters and texts from loveable dum-dum Paul (Daniel Diemer) to his secret crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire).
Ellie, a girl so introverted she might as well be a pep rally poster on the walls of her high school, finds an intellectual (and romantic) connection with Aster that brings her out of her shell. Unfortunately, her words and thoughts are all said through the vessel of Paul. This sets up a modern, queer take on Cyrano de Bergerac that is pleasantly subversive, but still finds itself stuck in teen film clichés.
Lewis carries the film admirably by creating a character that is believable both as a wallflower and as someone bursting at the seams with an intense longing for love and friendship. The problem is that the movie undercuts her by literally saying the word “longing” over and over in voiceovers and speeches. High school films can get away with grand, pretentious statements (we were all grand and pretentious in high school), but The Half of It does it by too much telling when it needs to get out of Lewis’ way for her to show it.
Another positive, however, comes in the form of Dieme, who nails the “jock with the heart of gold” character in Paul. However, we don’t get much further under the surface. He’s in love with Aster, but why does he love this girl he’s never met or talked to before? “It’s a high school movie, that’s why!” is essentially how the movie explains it. The movie mostly uses him as a tool to get Ellie closer to Aster, but once the film settles into a nice pace midway through when he and Ellie start to bond over conversational ping-pong, the film gets more charming. Better yet, Paul gets much more tolerable.
The final person in the triangle, Aster, is a descendant of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s “popular girl who thinks for herself” character, Amanda Beckett, in Can’t Hardly Wait. She dates the most popular guy at school, Trig “King of the Mud” Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz), but is also really into philosophy and Wim Wenders films for some reason. She is the most underwritten character of the film, but Lemire is still able to achieve some nice moments in the role.
That’s especially true during the highlight of the film: a sequence where Ellie and Aster finally get to hang out. Aster takes Ellie to her own secret place, a remote lake, where they can be the only people that exist in the world. It’s also when Ellie gets to show her longing with glances and stutters rather than just talk about it though witty quotes from books and movies. It also helps to use Sharon Van Etten’s “Seventeen” as a needle drop while they drive there, windows down. If movies want to use that song to soundtrack moments of teen angst for the rest of time, I wouldn’t complain.
The Half of It is mostly in the middle-tier of [Netflix rom-coms], but Ellie is the kind of protagonist we don’t see often enough. Her journey is, despite the film’s missteps, worth taking.
Once they jump into the lake, they fall into a deep conversation about God (Aster is the daughter of the town’s pastor), and it’s here we finally get to the spirit of what makes Wu a strong filmmaker. She shows two young women being incredibly vulnerable with each other in a way that’s genuine and only for them to share. There’s even a direct nod to the Bechdel Test when Aster says, “I’ve never hung out with a girl and not talked about boys before.” It’s the only on the nose moment the film earns.
Netflix has slowly built up a nice library of coming of age rom-coms. The Half of It is mostly in the middle-tier of those, but Ellie is the kind of protagonist we don’t see often enough. Her journey is, despite the film’s missteps, worth taking. Let’s hope Wu doesn’t have to wait another 16 years to get another shot.
The Half of It hits Netflix this Friday, May 1.