Netflix presents another gem in its original content with “The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu. The concept is a familiar one, based on the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, but told with a light, fresh, new perspective meant to entertain teens and adults alike.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is different. She’s Asian and feels as though she stands out like a sore thumb. The popular kids make fun of her, but she’s intrinsically resilient and incredibly smart. Using her writing talents, she creates a business at school — writing essays for those who are less talented or perhaps just plain lazy. Ellie’s English teacher, Mrs. Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker), actually enjoys Ellie’s business as it saves her from reading the garbage she otherwise would endure. Geselschap’s intermittent screen time brings an unexpected level of comedy to the story, thanks to her nuanced timing and delivery. However, this character also gives Ellie a crystal ball and one adult with whom she really can confide. Using voice-over narration and this character, we get to know Ellie on a deeper level. To Geselschap’s dismay, Ellie, in need of more cash to help her financially failing and accent-laden father, agrees to help the popular yet rather inarticulate Paul (Daniel Diemer), the football star, write love letters to the girl of his dreams, Aster (Alexxis Lemire).
Of course, if you’re familiar with the story of Cyrano de Bergerac or of Steve Martin’s rendition in “Roxanne,” there’s plenty of comedy from miscommunications, missteps and realizations. But what makes this film deeper is these teens are at a pivotal point of self-discovery. Their very identities are on the verge of unmasking as even they don’t realize who they are or what they are destined to become. The innocence of youth is beautifully revealed as these layers are shed, allowing each of the characters, but in particular, Ellie, to grow and mature.
Within the story, as with so many high school films, there is bullying and “The Half of It” certainly accentuates this as well. Again, another element that allows the film to shine is it never takes the reconciliation of the bullying too far. There’s a sense of reality within the film that will hit home no matter your age.
While self-discovery, identity, bullying and obligation to family are all underlying aspects to the film, at the heart of it is Ellie, Paul and Aster’s relationships and how each of them grows. Ellie’s superiority complex over Paul is initially quite humorous, but as they each let down their guard, they realize you can’t judge a book by its cover. The same is true of the beautiful and seemingly perfect Aster.
Lewis plays Ellie as a no-nonsense young girl, always with her head down, dreaming of leaving this small town but with a self-defeatist attitude. The pain within is evident immediately as we see her existing on her own. And with a father who still is grieving the loss of his wife and Ellie’s mother years after, the effects on Ellie are detrimental. Lewis gives us all of these emotions, again, never overplayed, which connects us to her, and we fall when she does; we rejoice when she triumphs; and we support her as she grows. Diemer as the jock nails his role, and while it feels one-dimensional initially, we quickly find out his character has so much more to relay. Diemer connects with his character, delivers a performance that is genuine, and with all his perfectly played awkwardness, we laugh and love who this young boy is. Lemire easily delivers her role as the gorgeous, smart and popular girl, but the script gives her so much more to convey, and she does. Together, these three actors gel and elevate an already wonderful screenplay.
“The Half of It” is a film that revives a classic tale but gives us a fresh spin today’s generation can relate to and identify with. Filled with awkwardly comedic situations, layered dramatic elements and a cast that gives us a reason to care, Wu’s film comes to life. It’s a charmingly comedic yet dramatic story of growing up and learning about love, acceptance and, most importantly, yourself.
You can stream “The Half of It” on Netflix.
Reel Talk rating: 4 Stars