Ah, Netflix teen romances. There are so many of them at this point that it is almost hard to keep track, and the throwaway ones seem to arrive far more often than the good ones. If only all of them were like The Half of It, a new comedy written and directed by Alice Wu, whose last film was released sixteen years ago in 2004. As the sole writer of this film, she shows a clear vision and makes a high school comedy unlike most that have been released in the past couple of years. Most people will immediately bring up the fact that a lesbian relationship is at the center of the storyline, but Wu’s message is much larger than this inclusion, even though the representation is another thing that makes this movie excel. She wants to comment on how people love each other, and emphasize how the experiences that propel one off to another stage in life are essential and important. While the movie does revert back to tired stereotypes in the third act, it still sticks the landing for the most part and provides an interesting and surprisingly literary addition to the Netflix catalogue.
Wu’s story is a semi-autobiographical one, even though in real life the situation we are introduced to happened later in life. The protagonist is Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a very smart senior who writes essays for her less intelligent classmates for money. She lives on top of a train station with her father, and bikes to and from school every day. In order to get more money, she agrees to write love letters for a rather unintelligent jock (Daniel Diemer) who isn’t good with words. The catch is that the girl he has a crush on (Alexxis Lemire) is also Ellie’s object of desire, meaning she is writing his love letters using her own feelings. This sounds like a typical love triangle storyline, and while it sort of is, Wu’s script is witty and subversive enough that it never falls into the smattering of forgettable rom-coms that are produced.
The Half of It is witty throughout, using the typical high school tropes and making fun of them from a different perspective. Wu is clearly literate in both modern and classic literature, and this helps her subvert much of the dumb clichés that often come with teen movies in the 2000s. She expresses her knowledge through the protagonist, who often quotes famous literature in her narration and watches classic films with her father, such as Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story. While the intelligence of Ellie and Aster Flores, the girl she likes, are what separate this movie from the pack, what really brings the heart to this rom-com is Paul, the jock who is trying to win Aster’s affection. David Diemer delivers my favorite performance in the movie, managing to portray a jock who is so dim-witted that almost every scene with him is laugh-out-loud funny, even though he is also an emotionally rich character. A scene between him and Ellie when they are talking about their backgrounds and why they are staying in their boring town is fantastic, showcasing the quality performances while also explaining one of the most important points of the movie.
One of the biggest reasons I appreciate this movie is that it never presumes that grade school relationships and drama are everything in life. Other high school movies, like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, are all about the relationships and seem to imply that who the protagonist dates is all that matters. In reality, high school relationships almost never last, and assuming that everything is about the one person these characters date in this period of their life is a very superficial perspective. In The Half of It, Wu is smart enough to realize that high school romance is about creating one’s outlook on life and love moving forward, and she uses this movie to encourage the exploration of love in all its forms. The point of this movie is not who dates who or whether people stay friends, it’s that all of the characters find out more about themselves and who they are. This message is universal and far more effective than if Wu had pandered to the audience that just wants a typical romance story.
However, the movie does not last its entire runtime constantly subverting genre expectations. The last third begins with one of my least favorite clichés in all of film (the classic “make-main-characters-fight-for-no-reason-other-than-reuniting-them-at-the-end-of-the-movie” cliché) and it doesn’t execute this plotline in a way that justifies its use. For two scenes in a row, it starts to slip back into mediocre teen drama territory even though thus far it had been great, and that was a shame given how the first two acts built up my expectations. Luckily, Wu is back on track by the very end of the film, and during the last two scenes she hits home the message in an essential and unique way. But near the end she includes some plotlines coinciding with a scene in a church that I think could have been completely removed from the final product. It doesn’t tarnish the overall film too much, but while it was happening it was very disappointing and somewhat annoying for me.
I do love what Wu does with this film as a whole, and she still proves herself as an interesting voice. The direction here is awesome and the script is even better, and I hope that Wu’s next film makes The Half of It look like just the beginning of a long career. The acting talent in this is also very good, with plenty of newcomers that I could see going on to star in much bigger projects. This isn’t the absolute best film to come out of the Netflix banner this year, but it is definitely worth checking out for its casual representation of LGBTQ and Asian characters and for its witty and intelligent script. The Half of It fares really well when compared to other films of its type, even though some of the weaknesses that are included in most rom-coms are also included in this. Fortunately, The Half of It is a better movie than most while being a charming and heartwarming watch.
I give The Half of It a B+.