Premise: When a well-meaning but inexpressive jock asks her to write a love letter to his crush, straight-A student Ellie Chu ends up discovering a lot about herself, love, and life itself.
These nice Netflix originals in the YA genre have been hit and miss with me so far, at least out of the ones I’ve seen.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before? Hit.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before 2? Big miss.
All The Bright Places? Even bigger miss.
The Half Of It? Home run.
Even though it isn’t based on a book like the others, The Half Of It blends the usual YA romance tropes with a splice of teenage realism to create something so heartwarming and earnest that it demands to be felt rather than simply experienced. Ellie’s life at the beginning of the movie is hard, but she’s also sheltered from her own emotions by going through her daily motions doing her classmates’ homework to pay the bills on behalf of her father. She’s basically an adult. Except for in matters of the heart.
Popular jock Paul Munsky makes a slight change to her money-making scheme and asks her to write a love letter to his crush, the popular but more self-aware Aster Flores, who also happens to be the daughter of the pastor. Ellie eventually agrees to the scheme and it inevitably snowballs into a lot more than just one poetic letter.
Ellie gets under Aster’s skin, challenges her intellectually, they connect. But as far as Aster’s concerned, she’s connected with the lovably sweet Paul, who is pretty much hopeless at IRL conversation with her. This, as with the twist of the fake-dating trope, causes issues later down the line but does help to create an unexpected bond between Ellie and Paul, who don’t seem to have that much in common, but their friendship is so pleasing to watch. There’s a heartfelt take on the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype where Paul is increasingly socially awkward rather than intellectually incapable. He learns things for Aster, he reads books for Aster, whom he’s convinced himself he’s in love with for reasons we’re not immediately sure he understands.
Taking some inspiration from the play Cyrano de Bergerac, Alice’s Wu sensitive handling of the film’s themes creates such a tender look at the complications of adolescence, all while envisioning real and entertaining characters for us to follow along. Perhaps the adults are the most far-fetched characters, such as the teacher who ignores her class’ mass plagiarism simply because she doesn’t want to read the sub-par work they would do on their own. A funny dig at the incompetence of small-town perceptions, sure, but requires a certain suspension of disbelief for it to make sense. In any other movie, students would be penalised for cheating. But The Half Of It doesn’t have any time to waste on its background players besides, somewhat startlingly, its true macho hot-jock stereotype ‘Trig’, who is supposedly dating Aster without really seeing her as our two protagonists do.
Our 104 minutes are wisely spent with Ellie, Paul, and somewhat Aster as Wu attempts to convey a sense of belonging in these three people who rarely feel that sort of thing in their everyday lives. Ellie (Leah Lewis) is the non-stop brainiac without her juvenility, Paul (Daniel Diemer) is the forgotten sibling whose family rejects change, and Aster (Alexxis Lemire) is the girl-next-door type to everybody apart from herself. And it’s through these journeys of introspection and realisation that The Half Of It doubles down on its tenderness. Whether it’s the heartbeat rhythm of the ping-pong conversation lessons or the act of telling somebody something personal about yourself, the confusion of what love actually is haunts these characters as they figure out more and more about themselves and what they actually want.
The three main characters are played with such youthful sentimentality by relative newcomers Lewis, Diemer, and Lemire. It’s through their wide-eyed confessions and shy smiles that we’re effortlessly transported into their worlds and experiences. With that and the stellar writing, The Half Of It manages to balance the maturity and immaturity of high-schoolers, allowing them room for independence, but also leaving them with the knowledge that there is much more to learn about being a person and being themselves.
With an expectation on its back through its genre and streaming platform, The Half Of It manages to creatively side-step a lot of the clichés one would usually find in a lesser film, but simultaneously it leans into some of them with a self-awareness that can only ameliorate the experience. There’s some parts that are perhaps too squishy and on the nose, but they are few and far-between as most of the film is youthfully exuberant without being too frenetic. Alice Wu has some great directorial instincts for this only being her second film. It’s exciting to know that there a fresh voice in this genre, one that does not undermine its audience, but also doesn’t preach to them.
I hope Netflix take this sort of vein of filmmaking and run with it, not only giving marginalised voices their own creative control over their stories, but also allowing YA content to be smart rather than tiresomely rote.
The Half Of It is streaming on Netflix worldwide now!
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