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Bizarre love triangle – ‘The Half of It’

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One of my favorite romantic comedy techniques is the adaptation of and/or inspiration by a classic work. This is particularly prolific in the teen-targeted sector, because let’s be honest, love stories tend to be a young person’s game. Granted, quality source material is hardly a guarantee of a quality film, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

The latest example of the literary classic-turned-YA rom-com “The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu and newly streaming on Netflix. It definitely lands on the inspired by side of things, but it wears that particular influence – namely, Edmund Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” – loudly and proudly.

Granted, it takes the classic secret correspondence-driven love triangle and gives it a decidedly original flair, gender-flipping our erstwhile epistle-writer and lending the entire proceedings a cloak of LGBTQ+ friendliness that serves to make the story feel both of the moment and widely accessible.

It doesn’t hurt that Wu is a gifted filmmaker with a particular talent for language; she’s got a real ear for witty and romantic dialogue. And she has an outstanding trio of young actors at the film’s center. All the pieces are there for a lovely little movie – and “The Half of It” delivers.

Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis, TV’s “Nancy Drew”) is a shy teenager living in the small Washington town of Squahamish. She’s very smart – picking up extra cash by writing papers for her peers – but also very lonely. She lives with her father at the local train depot; he’s the station master, though Ellie handles the majority of his limited duties for him.

Things change when Ellie is approached for a different kind of writing project. Good-natured lug Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer, TV’s “Sacred Lies”), a football player and erstwhile sausage developer, approaches Ellie with a request – write him a letter with which to woo his crush. It’s not Ellie’s usual gig, but she accepts when she learns who the object of Paul’s affection is – Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire, “The Art of Murder”), the beautiful, smart, popular girl who also happens to be the focus of Ellie’s own crush.

What follows is a delicate dance playing out on two fronts. While Ellie is holding thoughtful and heartfelt conversations with Aster via social media and the like, Paul is awkwardly trying to hold up his end of things when he meets Aster in person. Finding the balance between the two approaches proves … difficult.

All of this is complicated by Ellie’s own concerns. Her dad is depressed and misses her deceased mother. Her burgeoning feelings for Aster are tough to tamp down. She’s got a teacher who keeps pushing her to expand her reach as far as continuing her education. Her focus on Paul and Aster means that the GPA of her peers is slowly dropping. Plus, there’s the mandatory senior talent show to think about.

There’s no disputing the fragility of this house of cards that has been built. Ellie may be smart, but can she find a way to resolve this love triangle? Or will it all collapse under the weight of deception, left without a leg to stand on?

The first thing that stands out about “The Half of It” is how utterly, relentlessly sincere it is. That might seem a small thing to note, but that sense of sincerity simply radiates from every frame of this movie, creating a wonderful and inviting energy that any fan of romance – particularly teen romance – will be hard-pressed to ignore. And the sincerity begets the sweetness.

The gender-flipping and queer-friendliness of the story breathes life into the Cyrano trope; we’ve seen plenty of riffs on this in the past, but this one is very much its own thing – in a good way. Wu uses the basic concept as a jumping-off point toward telling a story that is uniquely hers. Taking this sort of familiar inspiration and building something new isn’t at all easy, but the work put forth via Wu’s gifted eyes and ears certainly make it seem like it is.

Oh, and “The Half of It” is also smart and quite funny in a way that feels very much of a piece with the worldview of a precocious teenager – particularly one living in a small town. It’s interesting – the language is smart and well-crafted, but without the wordy twee-ness that sometimes comes with teen stories. There’s none of the overwriting that you sometimes get in these situations; the dialogue feels grounded and genuine.

Wu’s cause is greatly helped by the trio of exceptional young actors holding down the corners of the central love triangle. Lewis is absolutely wonderful as Ellie, finding a way to capture the combination of faux-cynical veneer atop deeply romantic core. She’s smart and sharp, embodying the lonely square peg. Diemer is an awkward delight as Paul, the sort of gormlessly well-meaning galoot that is impossible not to like. He simply radiates good feelings, even when he’s stammering and stumbling his way through his feelings. Lemire, as the object of their respective affections, has a tough job, but she handles it beautifully. In her hands, Aster is a girl who is just as isolated as the others, just in a different way, someone who is saddled with unwanted expectations regarding her future. The rest of the ensemble handles their business well, but let’s be real – this film belongs to Lewis, Diemer and Lemire.

“The Half of It” is sweet without being saccharine and heartfelt without sacrificing humor. It is a charming film that has no qualms with wearing its sincerity on its sleeve. It is a feel-good love story driven by outstanding performances. These teenagers feel real, and so their relationships do as well. You don’t often get that feeling of verisimilitude from a teen romance, but hey – you don’t often get movies like “The Half of It.”

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 04 May 2020 09:12

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