Among the sci-fi TV dramas and reality shows, Netflix has become known for teen romcoms – for better or worse. At their best, you get sweet, easy to watch movies like To All The Boys I Loved Before; at their worst, you end up with ill-thought-through, misogynistic tripe like The Kissing Booth. Putting The Half of It, a slow-burning teen dramedy from fresh new filmmaker Alice Wu, doesn’t seem quite fair, but the comparisons between this unconventional, cerebral film and the rest of what is put out by the service are inevitable. While I don’t think Wu’s film is by any means perfect, I respect that it’s taking the genre in a bold new direction that strays away from cookie-cutter girl meets boy romance.
Ellie Chu is a quiet, bookish Chinese teen who helps her struggling father financially by writing essays for her schoolmates on the side. However, this branches out from the professional to the personal when well-meaning but slow jock Paul asks her to pen a letter to his crush Aster, who Ellie happens to have been quietly pining for herself. This almost feels like the notoriously bad Sierra Burgess Is A Loser done right, but rather than allowing cruelty to pass without criticism, this is a film that cares deeply for all its major players, and you end up rooting for everyone tangled in the triangle. This is greatly helped by the wonderful performances at the core of the film, particularly Leah Lewis, whose knowing poker face only occasionally betrays the emotional isolation and insecurity that Ellie holds inside.
More so than any of the other Netflix teen films I’ve watched, The Half Of It was made by someone who can utilize film language to its best potential. Gone is the highly saturated, symmetrical shot-reverse-shot aesthetic they tend to roll out for ‘quirky coming of age story’, replaced by an aesthetic bold enough to confront the protagonist’s own loneliness within the bible bashing town of Squahamish. The shots are wide, the palette is cold and dingy, and no one looks like a supermodel (though Aster is always shown in such a way that you understand why both Ellie and Jake think she’s an absolute goddess). This comes in brilliant contrast to the rare moments of straightforward warmth and beauty in the film – Ellie’s cozy room where she writes her music and Aster’s secret spot in the woods are safe havens for the characters, and a visual delight when they’re on screen.
While I commend Netflix for providing a platform for fresh new directors, and I admire how bold and uncompromising Wu’s vision for this film clearly was, there are some telltale hallmarks of her relative newness to the medium. For instance, though I enjoyed how low key and tranquil much of the runtime was, the pace did sometimes cause the film to drag, and I found myself wondering if trimming some of the fat and making The Half Of It 90 minutes instead of 105 might have lead to a sharper, more refined end product. Nonetheless, the personal touches that went into this movie almost resulted in the flaws becoming strengths, reflecting themes of communication, LGBT loneliness, and personal growth, and I finished the film delighted with what a fresh, unusual perspective I had just seen on the rom-com genre. Most of us have a lot of time right now, and you won’t regret spending some of it watching Ellie Chu come of age – she’s a good kid, and you may never have seen one like her before onscreen.