The rom-com genre has a default story template that is used by zillions of movies every year, but only a few of those shine out by playing with elements of humor and chemistry between the lead actors. Thankfully, Alice Wu’s Netflix feature “The Half of It” falls in that category. This story, which has been penned by Wu, would have been one-dimensional if she hadn’t taken out the time to flesh out these tenderhearted, quirky, yet likable characters. The result is a refreshing and smart coming-of-age drama that feels like a progressive addition to the ever-expanding teen movie-pack.
The story follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a Chinese American straight-A student running a small business of writing essays for her not so bright classmates. When she is approached by the kind and dim-natured school jock Paul Munsky who asks for an unusual favor, her dull life takes a startling turn. Munsky wants Ellie to write on his behalf. A love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) trying to impress her by using Ellie’s writing abilities. The catch here is that Ellie bears a crush on Aster too.
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The story breezes forward with an interesting and comic exchange between Ellie and Aster as Paul benefits from it. The detail in characterization is especially impressive with Alice bringing out the experiences of the three central characters in a real and delightful manner. Ellie is more of a loner who steers clear of taunts from bullies at school (kind of used to it) and is accustomed to fade in the background. Aster is expected to fill the mold of a typical cheerleader of the school like the other popular girls while she procrastinates about her future with the dumber jock Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz). And then there is Paul – who comes out as a chump initially (and is actually a sweetheart), but later turns out to be a guy who wants to stand up on his own with his cheeky and inspiring ‘sausage taco’ idea. The audiences come to know about the quirkiness of these characters through their communication with each other and the gawkiness of it all doesn’t come out as feigned. The drama is also elevated because there are no tangential plot points and the narrative is streamlined to focus on the love triangle.
Leah, Alexxis, and Daniel make for a lovable trio. Leah is the real find here as she crackles up the screen with her presence and strong character although she has a meek outward appearance. I am pretty sure she has a bright future ahead of her. Daniel gives an earnest and adorably funny performance. It could have been better if Wu had tapped into Alexxis’ interesting character arc a bit more although she does justice with whatever screen time she gets. The chemistry between these three characters is magnetic and helps each of them rise from their monotonous and dead-end atmosphere. Watch for a late scene where Ellie and Aster float in a pool of water talking about loneliness and what future holds for them – it is magical.
“The Half of It” is a great character study rather than a straightforward romantic comedy with a simple ending. Wu never lets the characters have the solution they long for and instead sets them free and compels them to take risks and figure out what they actually want. The film deftly unravels the difference between wanting and being all the while infusing humor and heart into the narrative. Alice Wu’s feature debut was “Saving Face” which hit select theaters way back in 2004. With “The Half Of It,” she proves that the industry is fortunate to have her back as a director who wants to take bold steps forward with a familiar genre format and reiterate that there is no one way of loving.
The Half of It is now streaming on Netflix
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