Alice Wu’s directorial effort is an astonishing coming-of-age drama about self-acceptance and, unsurprisingly, teenagers’ view of platonic love. At its very core, The Half of It might immediately remind us of Cyrano de Bergerac’s story or its multi-generational iterations. There’s an otherworldly beautiful lady; there’s a charming halfwit; there’s an eloquent middle-person known for the panache and is insecure of own physical appearance. It’s easy to label it a modern-day iteration for worse or, maybe, good if “modern” also means more “woke.”
What separates Wu’s story from others, aside from the queer twist, is the audacity to look beyond the original story’s focus on lovers’ desire. There’s no glorification of scandalous cat-fishing nor non-consensual kiss (that’s entirely Sierra Burgess is A Loser‘s fault). Wu completely alters the adversaries to make some relevant real-world issues which eventually drive the plot away from the banality and predictability, while retaining the original sense.
While Cyrano de Bergerac is a powerful (albeit heartbreaking) love story, some values of the story fade as history progresses. The warring period is no more; instead, everyone is now fighting their own battle, especially in a diverse society. Happily ever after is an overused utopia and people don’t buy it anymore. Therefore, Wu transliterates the story into a personal battle for a young Chinese-American girl, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), who takes up de Bergerac’s mantle. She’s not a soldier with panache; she’s an introverted straight-A student living with her widowed father, who also struggles with adapting to American life. The figure of Roxane a.k.a. the beautiful epicenter of the story is Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), a religious girl who happens to attract a school jock, Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer)—the Christian de Neuvillette incarnation, even when she’s already with Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz)—loosely based on Viscount Valvert.
Long story short, Paul hires Ellie to help him wooing Aster; unbeknownst to him, Ellie also has a secret crush on Aster but is too shy just to speak to her. The writer-director confidently follows the original outline to keep the story fueled. Ellie begins to write letters to Aster—spiting her own heart into ethereal words through letters and (unsurprisingly) on behalf of Paul. And yet, as the plot progresses, The Half of It begins to stray slightly from being an awkward rom-com to focusing on Paul and Ellie’s chemistry. When both teenagers are trying to bonding with Aster (one virtually and the other physically), they begin to form an enticing bonding between each other. They open up to each other and unravel their true nature. After all, they’re both alike—two souls confined in a sleepy town—in a different way.
This, apparently, is not a deviation from the source but the chemistry adds an extra layer that makes the love-triangle even more complicated than Bergerac’s. Alice Wu guides the audiences to look through a peeping hole to the nature of their platonic connection. But, when the sweet moments have finally come to an end (or an abrupt pause) as a rom-com should be, The Half of It chooses to go subtly in addressing the conflict. It’s as if the whole movie isn’t supposed to be romantic, but still somehow sweet in the presentation. In the end, it’s a coming-of-age movie that knows where it stands. The pursuit of happily-ever-after ending is a nonsensical goal for high-school lovebirds; therefore, the conflict focuses on highlighting the characters’ personal battle instead of running amok into some melodramatic storms or, even worse, endless sexual drives.
Leah Lewis casts doubters flabbergasted with her nuanced performance as a double-minority figure. Hiding behind quaint glasses and “Russian doll of clothing” style, her performance is focused and clinical in revealing realness of emotion. She bonds magnificently with Diemer, who seems to enjoy playing an accidental sidekick. The chemistry is genuine and cute—emanating an unseen message saying “please don’t screw this up” at all times. Yet, even when it screwed, the heartbreak is also real although a platonic one.
Someone once said, “a rom-com should not be boring and forgettable.” With The Half of It, it’s meant to differ from such credo. If you’re expecting a flowery rom-com where desire controls the plot, this simply is not the one. But, when you’re open to a story of teenagers working their own curiosity about the nature of love, this might be it. It might not be explosive, but never tedious.