REVIEW: The Half of It (2020)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of The Half of It — Directed by Alice Wu.

Netflix has, in a way, become the home of the teenage coming-of-age romantic-comedy genre. Since they achieved great success with Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Netflix has been eager to return to that same subgenre and treat their worldwide audience to stories about young Americans finding themselves, discovering their own identities, and expressing their true feelings. Netflix has successfully cornered that market as of late, and their latest teenage romantic-comedy success story comes from filmmaker Alice Wu, whose second feature has finally come out for all to see fifteen years after her directorial debut was originally released.

Alice Wu’s The Half of It follows Ellie Chu (played by Leah Lewis), a Chinese-American straight-A High School student who makes money doing her classmates’ homework. Ellie, who is wise beyond her years, has a crush on Aster Flores (played by Alexxis Lemire), the popular daughter of the local pastor, but Ellie is too shy to approach her. Then life throws her a curveball, when Paul Munsky (played by Daniel Diemer), a big-hearted but inarticulate football jock, asks Ellie to ghostwrite love letters for Aster. Though initially reluctant to write Paul’s letters, Ellie eventually agrees when her family cannot afford to pay the power bill. Ellie’s high-brow references and persuasive writing eventually makes Aster interested, but Paul needs to listen closely to Ellie if he wants to live up to the persona that she has crafted for him. Although Ellie and Paul are infatuated with the same person, they soon become close friends and learn a lot about life from each other.

Alice Wu’s The Half of It is yet another popular and relatively successful young adult Netflix film that focuses on letters, at least to some extent. This is a young adult romantic-comedy that a lot of teenagers will see themselves in, and the film features some really charming performances from Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer, whose characters are both relatively well-defined and relatable. I also really like the characterization of Aster Flores, who Wu does try, at least to some extent, to define as more than just a pretty and popular young woman.

However, while I really liked Alexxis Lemire in the film, I don’t think Wu gives her enough to do. However, while Wu’s writing treats Flores, Chu, and Munsky with a lot of respect and love, I thought it was a really bad decision to make the Trig Carson (played by Wolfgang Novogratz) character so mindless. It also feels a little bit weird that the film doesn’t ever treat Trig and Aster’s relationship with enough respect to even call out that Aster is being unfaithful while dating and communicating with Paul and Ellie. Also, there is this very hurtful comment from Paul Munsky late in the film, which is a serious character-complication, that I don’t think Wu does enough with for its inclusion to be necessary or justified.

Wu has also thrown a lot of really nice literary and cinematic references into her film. I think there are a lot of really smart philosophy quotes, and I think it is always good when modern young adult films make its target audience aware of the existence of Humphrey Bogart or Wim Wenders, even when some of these references are clichéd. However, I also think it’s a little bit unrealistic for Aster Flores to know Wim Wenders’ filmography so well that she recognizes that Ellie has used a line of dialogue from one of his films in her letter. Although I guess, she could’ve just googled the line.

Generally, I really enjoyed the letters. I thought that they had a lot of personality to them, and I loved the sequence where Aster and Ellie communicated by painting a wall. However, I must say that some of the letters sounded more like text messages than actual long and personal letters. Of course, they do eventually communicate via text messages, and I thought that it was really inventive and fun to see how Ellie Chu guided Paul and Aster on one of their dates just by texting them.

I was initially impressed by how fast the film was paced. Wu tells a lot of her story in the first twenty minutes. But as the film eventually becomes less about the letters and more about the dates, the film does slow down a little bit. Frustratingly, while the very ending is solid, I thought that Wu’s inclusion of an awkwardly melodramatic scene inside of a church was a big mistake. That church scene just felt like it was ripped out from a very different and much less interesting film and inserted into The Half of It to allow for some last-minute stagey drama.

Although I did like this film quite a bit, I have to admit that, as I was writing this review, my problems with it became much clearer. As I have laid out, I think there are some general problems with the writing and its concluding act. Alice Wu’s The Half of It is a solid coming-of-age romantic-comedy, but I wish it stuck the landing.

6.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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