The Half of It is a film for grown-ups squished into the bodies of teenagers and somehow, some way, it totally works. It follows the shy straight-A student Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), isolated and friendless in her remote, backwater town of Squahamish.
She makes some much-needed extra cash penning homework papers for her fellow high-school students. Ellie reluctantly agrees to help the lovelorn school jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) write love letters to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the girl they both secretly love.
As all three embark on an unexpected journey of discovery, they form a complicated triangle of friendship as they come to terms with their unexpected feelings about love and find a connection in the most unlikely of places. It is essentially a teen dramedy retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Teen-focussed movies have two choices: first, they can speak directly to their core audience, and this can either be contrived or authentic (like Sex Education and Book Smart). The other option is to speak to grown-up audiences who wish they could relive, and redo, their teenage years but know if they were forced to it would be beyond painful (what 30-year-old wants to hang out with teenagers? They're annoying).
Alice Wu's second feature-length film does is both of those things. The dialogue is sharp and pointed, laced with quotes from Greek poets, references to abstract artists, and French cinema.
But none of this obscures the vein of emotion that holds the whole thing together, striking a balance between deft cleverness and heartfelt sincerity. Any teen is bound to see some aspect of themselves reflected in Ellie or Paul or Aster, and adults too can see in this prism bits of themselves in everyone.
The fact that a queer love story is given the same attention to detail, the same tropes and pitfalls as a classic heterosexual love story, is another reason to celebrate The Half of It. But this alone isn't enough to make a movie good.
What makes The Half of It good is the self-awareness that these tropes and this story are universal – feelings of otherness and loneliness compounded by things like race, sexuality, and wealth. This rich experience is presented against a hellish Americana landscape so hyped up on steroids it's a car crash you can't look away from.
Instead of making the movie into a caricature, it somehow makes the quieter, more intimate and authentic moments shine. And not just in comparison, but because this psychotic fever dream of small-town America is somehow also authentic, at least in our collective reimagining of what towns, and people, like that are like.
Unfortunately, it all falls apart about 30 minutes from the end, when whatever calamity we've been building up to take 15 minutes too long to happen. But when it does, it's a gut punch you see coming that still hits you hard.
Some points are made with the swing of a hammer, others with careful precision, but in the end – despite the pacing issues that crop up in the last quarter – The Half of It is a strong, slightly familiar and slightly David-Lynchian, love story.
The Half of It is now available to stream on Netflix
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