Although the movie theaters are closed, thank goodness new films are still being released, albeit in a slightly different fashion. With online streaming services, people can still enjoy fresh entertainment, and there is a great coming-of-age dramedy now playing on Netflix.
Inspired by “Cyrano de Bergerac,” one of the most popular plays ever written and a favorite of mine, “The Half of It” is a movie about love, friendship, family, fitting in and all the other things teenagers are stressing about in the 2010s.
But when told through the personal lens of writer-director Alice Wu, the story takes on a refreshing and inspiring twist by having a lesbian Chinese girl for its protagonist. Rather than the large-nosed and panache Frenchman, our hero gives a needed voice to the immigrants and LGBT teens living without confidence and support.
Because regardless of where any of us are from or who we are inside, we are all looking for love, or at least want to continue to feel it from the people closest to us. So in a time when the future is uncertain and we’re all living day by day, a wholesome teen romantic comedy is just what I needed.
Shy, straight-A student Ellie (played by Leah Lewis) isn’t very popular, but she has a thriving side business writing for fellow students their high school essays. But one day, she is hired by sweet-but-dumb jock Paul (Daniel Diemer), who needs help writing a love letter.
Unfortunately, the recipient of the letter is Aster (Alexxis Lemire), one of the popular girls in their small-town school and the same student Ellie also has unexpressed feelings for. As Ellie helps Paul by writing his letters and text messages to Aster, the two girls inadvertently develop a friendship of their own and discover they have much more in common than expected.
At the same time, Paul and Ellie also begin to spend a lot more time together, leaving behind the business arrangement for a solid friendship. But when Ellie and Aster end up hanging out together shortly after Aster and Paul have their first date, things get a little more complicated.
“The Half of It” doesn’t waste time letting the audience know what type of movie it’s going to be, or rather, the kind of movie it isn’t going to be. In her opening narration, thinly disguised as one of her essays for another student, Ellie’s prose on love ends with the declaration that this isn’t going to be a love story.
While many of the teen comedy cliches from the 1980s and ‘90s are in there — the unpopular girl with a heart of gold, the dumb football player, the misunderstood artist — the modern twist of what exactly they’re looking for in life and how they go about getting it is refreshing. Seeing tired tropes flipped on their head and explored from the point of view of characters who are normally the butt of the joke puts this old story in very modern times.
And yet, that classic story still has a place here, with several noteworthy “Cyrano” scenes adapted for 2010s teens. Rather than Christian serenading Roxane outside her window while Cyrano feeds him lines from a nearby bush, we have Ellie texting lines to Paul while he and Aster are at a diner. While much more relatable, the sentiments and comedy still pack a punch.
Surprisingly, the most wonderful aspect of the story isn’t the romance, but the friendship between our Chinese lesbian wordsmith and the dumb jock who wants to be a chef. Seeing them talk and spend time together and eventually bring out the best in each other is so cute. It not only allows for exploring their similarities — wanting to make their families proud while always wanting to follow their own passions — but seeing that their differences don’t matter.
There is plenty to enjoy in “The Half of It” for everyone though. The jokes about small towns and the ridiculousness of high school are hilarious, the soundtrack has a lot of good jams and the smart writing elevates what would otherwise be another dumb teen comedy.
And that’s where the milestone decision of having the hero be a non-straight immigrant works in the movie’s favor and for our benefit. Because if Ellie can learn to love herself even if she doesn’t get the girl, so can we.