“A movie that operates with deeply felt intelligence and reaches the viewer through a warm and elegant delivery.”
by Ken Bakely
There is something to be said for a movie that, while adhering to many familiar tropes and devices, can execute them in a way that demonstrates inspiration, charm, and effectiveness. Alice Wu’s The Half of It, starting from the mold of Cyrano de Bergerac, goes onto tread through the same material that many other romantic comedies or coming-of-age movies have. But it’s a worthwhile and inviting movie, progressive and humanistic not only in that it features a thoughtfully depicted queer protagonist, but also in its careful examination of its characters’ interactions and feelings, beyond the admittedly familiar wrappings of the material. Set in a small town in rural Washington, we follow Ellie (Leah Lewis), an acerbic, Chinese-American high school senior whose after-school job consists of writing essays for her classmates. However, as she ponders her future after graduation, a final, deeply unusual writing assignment comes her way: Paul (Daniel Diemer), a sweet-natured jock who has, erm, limited writing skills, asks Ellie to write a letter he can send to his crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie is reluctant at first, not least of which because Aster is secretly the subject of her own affections. Nevertheless, the scheme goes over well; in fact, so well that Ellie’s written communications with Aster – first through letters, then through text – continue even after Aster and Paul have started to date.
There’s no question they are getting along well in their faceless conversations, discussing art and philosophy with ease. But the dynamics between these three become more and more complicated, as the effort to keep the initial illusion alive necessarily becomes more cumbersome as time goes on (remember, it’s supposed to be Paul holding these grand, text-based conversations). Yet, even the contrivances that arise are handled with a deft spirit, as Wu guides us through the film’s world with a moving ease. The cast is roundly spirited, as Lewis leads with a dynamic performance that draws out her character with fascinating and relevant subtexts. The character of Ellie is written with an unmistakable sense of loneliness at the start, as her sexuality and race lead her to feel alienated in her white, conservative surroundings. It’s only when she can speak to Aster, behind the veil of a strange anonymity, that she can let her thoughts and feelings and passions fly. Diemer’s affable Paul and Lemire’s pensive Aster are also enjoyable in their roles, adding to the vividly drawn world that Wu creates; characters who pop out against the mundane background of their small hometown (yet all settings in this film, regardless of their relative excitement, are well-captured through Greta Zozula’s graceful cinematography).
The insights that The Half of It holds – on its characters individually and collectively, how they relate, how they feel – are remarkably direct and resonant, clearing through the sameness of its more predictable or cliched plot points and helping the film succeed in the ways it does. There’s nothing to the broad, overriding plot structure of the movie that makes it immediately stand out above any one of a sprawling fleet of similar movies, but there’s something quite significant in the details that, optimistically, could be a preview of a better and fairer future for this genre. Clear-eyed sincerity and an abundance of inherent charisma both in front of and behind the camera go far in achieving these ends, combining with an approach that truly takes the effort to examine the subtleties and nuances of the situation at hand, when things could have so easily gone the route of flat sitcom fare in less capable hands. The value comes in looking closely at what’s going on here, what’s being quietly achieved through its careful rigor: with sharp performances and complex character building, this is a movie that operates with deeply felt intelligence and reaches the viewer through a warm and elegant delivery.