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There is not much uncharted ground to cover in the realm of high school coming of age stories, but the new Netflix original film “The Half of It” manages to subvert expectations at every turn. Director Alice Wu's film is quiet and introspective, yet hilarious and charming, packed with rich relationships to carry the film and even make certain cliches feel new.
In “The Half of It,” Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a solitary, brusque high school senior who doesn’t fit in in the tiny town of Squahamish. She writes her classmates’ essays for money until her neighbor Paul (Daniel Diemer) who doesn’t “speak very good” hires her to write love letters for his crush Aster (Alexxis Lemire). The Cyrano de Bergerac-esque scheme spirals out of control as everyone develops relationships they don’t expect and Ellie finds herself falling in love with the recipient of her letters.
Wu adapts a distinctly melancholic tone that complements the understated setting and plot. This effect is established from the beginning, which features an animated intro with a voiceover about the ancient Greeks, ethereal music, and a muted blue color scheme. The mood matches perfectly with the setting: The small, religious town of Squahamish feels like a real living, breathing place. It’s a place where no one wants to be yet no one can imagine abandoning, a dichotomy that leaves tension hanging over the film. The subdued plot has no explosive arguments or bursts of passion, making the emotional beats feel more grounded.
The film revolves around words and language, with its talented writer of a protagonist crafting love letters for a boy whose defining trait is his inability to express himself. Ellie writes profusely, but hardly speaks a word — she falls in love almost entirely through letters and text messages. Wu uses different shots and settings to keep the film visually interesting by having characters meet in Catholic confessionals, abandoned trains, and hidden hot springs, but hardly anything happens besides people talking to one another. There are some points in the first half where the film’s lack of action almost becomes a drag, but fortunately the film is packed with wonderful dialogue that ranges from witty to profound. The dialogue does not always sound organic — not many teenagers quote existentialist philosophers and some of the stereotypical dumb jock characters say impossibly inane things — but each character’s lines feels true to their voice and certain exchanges flow beautifully.
The strongest part of the film lies in the relationships between its central characters. Each one is unique and heartfelt; the actors who play Ellie, Aster, and Paul all have incredible chemistry with one another, and the ebbs and flows of attraction, friendship, and rejection all feel natural. Everything is tinged with a genuine teenage awkwardness and uncertainty that makes the plot more believable. And while Ellie states at the beginning that it’s “not a love story,” the film covers every type of love. The feelings blossoming between Ellie and Aster are as intense as they are repressed from the very beginning. Their textual exchanges are veiled by deception and their attraction in person is hidden, developing in private spaces or from quiet cursory glances. In the scenes where they do interact, Wu directs creative shots where the two share a glance through a reflection in a bathroom mirror or float parallel to one another in a spring — both breathtaking moments full of quiet tension. However, the standout arc of the film is the friendship between Ellie and Paul. Their characters complement one another uniquely, encouraging the other to grow and change their perspectives. By the end, Paul (an aspiring sausage chef) is even learning to make Chinese five spice pork with Ellie’s father. It is rare to find platonic relationships at the heart of a teen movie, and this one is quirky, laugh-out-loud funny, and full of heart.
“The Half of It” does fall into several of the same traps as other teen rom coms. Ellie is repeatedly harassed by stereotypical bullies with bad insults, and no apparent reason for targeting her besides the fact that she’s “different.” There is even an obligatory talent show scene that barely fits into the rest of the plot. Wu takes on big questions about identity, acceptance, and the meaning of love, but doesn’t quite offer perfect answers to any of them. Still, the film approaches its predicaments in a way that feels fresh, careful, and real. That sincerity, paired with captivating dialogue and relationships, makes it more than easy to forgive the film’s shortcomings.
—Staff writer Jenna Bao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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