In the small Midwestern town of Squahamish, bookish Chinese-American teenager Ellie (Leah Lewis) runs a side hustle writing essays for her classmates. Trouble begins for her when she’s asked to write a love letter to a beautiful girl at school, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), on behalf of Paul (Daniel Diemer), a local jock, but Ellie falls for Aster, instead.
Early on in her voiceover for teen romcom The Half Of It, high-schooler Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) informs us that this is not going to be a love story. In the strictest sense, she’s right: nobody ends up getting what or who they want in the traditional sense, but an awful lot of growing happens in the meantime.
In Alice Wu’s first film for 16 years (after Saving Face), Ellie, who comes from a quiet Chinese-American immigrant family, tries to keep her head down in her small, rural town of Squahamish. She’s a nerdy, straight-A student who writes English essays for the less cerebrally gifted in her class in exchange for spare cash, and in her downtime enjoys existentialism and Katharine Hepburn movies. In contrast to the typical small-town fixtures of rowdy blue-collar white folks and their jock kids, she is undoubtedly out of place; this is made all the more apparent in her looks of quiet longing at popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire), who seems to feel equally alienated — just better at disguising it.
An affable film with its heart in the right place.
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Using the framework of the classic Cyrano De Bergerac story, Ellie winds up being talked into writing love letters to Aster for an inarticulate but earnest jock named Paul (Daniel Diemer), and finds two things to be true: she is increasingly falling for Aster by proxy, and that Paul, moron though he initially seems, is actually a genuine friend. The premise is charming enough, particularly in the latter section of the film when Aster and Ellie are finally honest with one another, and in some quietly touching, unspoken moments between Ellie and her kind, watchful father (Collin Chou), as they eat and enjoy films together.
Wu’s depiction of otherness and acceptance in rural American life — where immigration and queerness are often still faced with deep bigotry — is never blunt but tacitly lingers on the periphery of the story, informing everything that goes on. It’s one of the strong points of The Half Of It. But the film also suffers a little from its depictions of teenage life and lust as so po-faced. There aren’t many jokes that land, making it seem like a rather solemn affair throughout, and you do wonder how many teenagers will see themselves in the film’s odd depiction of social media (nearly non-existent, or inaccurately portrayed), or the stilted way they interact with each other.
Still, even if its lack of liveliness is an issue, the performances are strong, particularly Leah Lewis as Ellie, with her perennially tousled hair and disaffected stare, and Daniel Diemer as the dopey but loveable Paul. The Half Of It is flawed, but it’s an affable film with its heart in the right place.
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