Alice Wu’s long-awaited second feature film as writer and director, The Half of It, which launches on Netflix Friday May 1st, has deservedly just won Tribeca’s Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. The film opens opens with an enchanting illustration by Shape & Shadow’s Hayley Morris depicting the Greek myth that humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and two faces, and now divided we’ve been left to search for our other halves. (The illustration style is very different, but it’s reminiscent in spirit to The Origin of Love sequence in queer classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch.) Accompanied by Anton Sanko’s stirring score, it’s a beautiful, lyrical opening and a fitting introduction to our cerebral, romantic lead Ellie Chu (a wonderful Leah Lewis); a glimpse into her soul, before things come crashing back down to her every day reality: “of course, the ancient Greeks never went to high school”.
Ellie gets the feeling few people at school know her name, besides the bullies who make fun of it. She lives a quiet home life with her widowed father, spending their evenings watching classic movies on television. An enterprising young woman, Ellie writes essays for her peers in return for cash to help support her household. “It’s an A or you don’t pay”, she guarantees. Initially she draws the line though at writing love letters for her sweet, but uncultured classmate Paul (an endearing Daniel Diemer). But with the electricity bill three months overdue, and the promise of an easy fifty dollars, she caves in and begins writing teenage billet-doux, filled with literary references to Paul’s crush, high school beauty Aster (a charming, engaging Alexxis Lemire) on his behalf. Falling fast for Aster herself, Ellie finds the letters all too easy to write as they express her own feelings towards the girl. Things are further complicated by the fact that Aster is already in a relationship with hot but shallow jock Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz), and by the deep friendship that blossoms bettween Ellie and Paul as they spend more time together.
As you might expect, things turn a little Cyrano de Bergerac, with Aster taken in by the words without knowing who really wrote them. Cue the Rocky style cultural training sequence, as Ellie prepares Paul to be match ready for a date at the diner with Astor, while he agonises over the appropriate emoji to message her. When Paul and Aster eventually meet there are some great comedy of errors moments, with an inarticulate Paul being fed lines by an undercover Ellie, surveying the date from outside the diner and cringing whenever Paul says the wrong thing. Plenty of relatable high school awkwardness follows as Ellie begins to spend time alone with Aster, including a beautiful afternoon at a secluded lake, captured with gorgeous, intimate cinematography by Greta Zozula.
Despite an element of ingrained conservative Christian homophobia that surfaces in the town, refreshingly the film’s tension and drama doesn’t come from inner-angst over Ellie’s same-sex attraction to Aster, which is handled with delicate, touching nuance by Wu and her two female leads. I also enjoyed seeing high schoolers represented without a layer of nostalgia or being looked down on by a more mature writer; they’re treated with respect as the young adults we know them to be. When Ellie and Aster are expressing their feelings, or quoting Wim Wenders, they sound like mouthpieces for more worldly adults as with some YA dramas. With a great soundtrack featuring Nick Cave, Ruen Brothers, Chicago and Photronique, it all adds up to a subtle, unhurried, affecting gem of a film that gets under your skin and stays there, likely to rewatched many times over by those who connect with it. A welcome addition to the pantheon of classic high school movies to be cherished.
By James Kleinmann
The Half of It launches on Netflix on Friday May 1st 2020.