We have a winner! Now if people would just start watching and recommending this Netflix gem we found hidden in a grid of choices clearly being influenced by factors beyond viewer control. It falls within the RomCom genre, a coming of age film with a rating of PG-13 that is watchable for families locked in with young teens.
Ellie Chu is a brilliant high school senior who rides her bike, seemingly always uphill and taunted by bullies, through fictional Squahamish, Washington, the kind of town that either traps you for life or provides the catalyst for escape. Actually filmed in upstate New York, Ellie is played by Leah Lewis, a multi-talented, adopted Chinese-American from Orlando, who has appeared in Disney films, on The Voice and even sang a solo at her own high school graduation. Her singing is put to use in a Napoleon Dynamite moment that serves as a bridge to her eventual acceptance at school.
She is almost boyish, plain and hiding behind glasses and pulled back hair in The Half of It, but there’s power and talent lurking just beneath her nerdy surface. Ellie is making money by writing essays for half of a philosophy class to help support her financially struggling father. She and the teacher have an understanding; the teacher is grateful for the assistance with an otherwise languishing group of students. Dad emigrated with a PhD in Engineering only to literally work switching train traffic in Squahamish. He and teacher both want Ellie to launch toward Iowa at Grinnell in the fall.
Ellie’s marketable talent as a writer takes an unexpected turn when Paul Munsky, doltish but kindly local jock and son of a large family with a meat business, hires her to write a love letter to his crush. That crush is Aster Flores, played by Alexxis Lemire, who sings like an angel and floats through her Squahamish existence with a Zen-like acceptance of her lot in life. She is the object of affection by Paul and also by Trig Carson, a self-absorbed pseudo celebrity among school seniors who also seems to have been programmed by expectations within the community. Ultimately, Ellie’s management of Paul’s relationship with Aster through letters and texts results in a crush of her own and closeted lesbian feelings that may not be entirely unrequited. What would we do in modern movies without cell phones? Art imitates life.
The Half of It is written and directed by Alice Wu, a computer science major with degrees from MIT and Stanford. Wow, talk about a career change! This is her second film. Online references to the story of Cyrano de Bergerac find parallels between self-doubting Ellie in the roll of Cyrano and Aster as the Roxanne equivalent. It is unknown if this was intentional or not, but it’s a great modern adaptation either way. The door opens for a sequel when Aster tells Ellie, “See you in a couple years.” And we are left wondering about Aster. What’s her story going forward?
If you enjoy being thoroughly engaged by a sleeper of a film with a cast devoid of overpaid stars, violence, nudity and profanity, this one just might bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your face.
The Half of It (2020) runs 1 hour, 44 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?