Review: Netflix’s The Half Of It is a charming queer romance

THE HALF OF IT (Alice Wu). 104 minutes. Some subtitles. Streaming on Netflix Canada Friday (May 1). Rating: NNNN

The Half Of It is a charming teenage riff on Cyrano de Bergerac that understands the real anguish of Edmond Rostand’s romantic tragedy: it’s not the ache of sending your dream girl into the arms of another, it’s the pain of being unseen by the one you love.

It’s a metaphor that’s perfectly suited to high school, where intensity and anonymity often intersect in the most painful fashion, and once writer/director Alice Wu establishes that dynamic, her movie is off and running.

Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) doesn’t have a big nose or anything she’s just quiet. She makes some quick cash writing essays for her less brainy classmates, but mostly she spends her time helping her father (Collin Chou) manage the tiny railway station in their nowhere town of Squahamish – which also means she hasn’t built much of a life for herself. But that gives Ellie the space to really commit to pining for the alluring Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), who is entirely out of her league.

And then things get complicated: Ellie’s neighbour Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), who’s just as hung up on Aster as Ellie is, hires Ellie to help him woo Aster by punching up his admittedly terrible love letter.

Paul isn’t the brightest bulb, but he understands his limitations and he knows his heart – and more importantly, he’s willing to pay considerably more than the usual rate for a quick rewrite.

So Ellie takes the gig and gets carried away, and in no time at all she’s impersonating Paul on a messaging app, using his identity to reveal her deepest feelings to Aster – and discovering Aster is just as sensitive and complex as she’d always hoped. (She’s quick to call “Paul” out on stealing a line from Wings Of Desire, which is modern shorthand for having an artistic soul.)

But now, of course, Ellie is complicit in not only defrauding the woman she loves but in setting her up with a boy. The queer tweak to Rostand works beautifully, bringing out the closeted aspects of Cyrano that were always there: the outsider protagonist, yearning for a love that isn’t considered possible or proper, shepherding the woman he loves towards a more conventional life even as he knows she deserves better.

Making Cyrano a withdrawn Chinese-American teenager who’s sure of her sexuality but unable to act on her feelings snaps the whole thing together beautifully, and Wu – whose only other movie credit is the lovely, understated 2004 mother-daughter story Saving Face – finds other ways to play up the LGBTQ elements in Ellie’s dilemma without any big speeches or teachable moments. It’s just baked into the texture of the movie, because this is Ellie’s story.

And because Ellie doesn’t really know Aster, Aster is The Half Of It’s big mystery. As far as our hero knows, her beloved is entirely straight – as the movie opens, she’s dating one of Paul’s douchier bros and looks to be on track for a pleasant but uninteresting marriage, as would seem appropriate for the daughter of a small-town pastor? (Oh, right: Wu has definitely seen Footloose.) Paul, who’s sensitive if not articulate, would be a better match… if a conventional life is what Aster wants.

But what if she doesn’t want that? Does she even know what she wants, at 17? And how can Ellie know what’s best for Aster, if she only knows the idealized version of her?

These themes are all brought out over the course of the film, and played with surprising grace by all three of Wu’s leads. Lewis, who’s appeared in the recent Charmed and Nancy Drew reboots, gives Ellie a quick temper that speaks volumes about the armour she’s had to develop as a visible minority in Squahamish. (Wu never leans on it, but she makes certain we’re aware of the constant hum of low-level racism in the community the story’s being told through Ellie’s eyes, after all.)

As Paul, rather than a surface-level reading of the dumb-jock archetype, Diemer finds a hesitant physicality that suggests a mind constantly working to process information. He’s dense but kind, and if he stumbles when trying to read people he’s genuine in his efforts to connect with them.

And then there’s Lemire, who as Aster has to make us believe she’s both sharp enough to have caught Ellie’s attention and just enough of a dreamer to let herself get swept up in a romance of letters. She absolutely nails it, and folds in an unselfconsciousness that lets us hope she’s open to any possibility, even though the The Half Of It opens with Ellie telling us this story won’t have a perfect happy ending.

Maybe so. But I’d say the ending Wu gives Ellie – and Aster, and Paul, and the audience – feels perfect just the same.


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