Of all the love stories, perhaps the young love one is the most difficult to fully capture. Inherently, it is almost always told by someone much older. From the writer to the director to the actors, the people recounting young love are very rarely, well, young. Somewhere in those years the discovery, awkwardness, passion, and fear often get lost and what we really get is an adult romance set in a high school.
The Half of It is that rare teen romance that captures so much of those lost elements. It tells the story of Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), an outsider Chinese American girl who is hired by Paul (Daniel Diemer) to help him woo Aster (Alexxis Lemire) through letters. If that premise sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an adaptation from the classic Cyrano de Bergerac tale (most famously made into the Steve Martin film Roxanne). Of course, the film begins by telling us this is not our typical love story, and it’s not in that the twist here is that Ellie is also in love with Aster. While those trappings of race and sexuality could be minor modern window dressing for a new adaptation, here they play as important aspects to not just Ellie’s worldview, but everyone surrounding her. Of course, Race and sexuality aren’t minor aspects to anyone’s story, but writer and director Alice Wu takes them a step further than most of her contemporaries. Ellie doesn’t just happen to be Chinese American as we sometimes see with token representation. It’s integral to the story and her identify as a character here.
Those aspects alone might make this an admirable film, but it goes further. The characters here are smart. In fact, one of my few criticisms might be they’re too smart—discussing film and literature that even smart students aren’t usually having these sorts of conversations about until well into college. Regardless, the film risks letting them be too smart for their age, when so many high school films underestimate the intelligence of their subject matter. More so, the film lingers to let them have those smart conversations, which at times become awkward and scary. Again, Alice Wu deserves a great deal of credit here.
Credit also goes to the cast. The three leads feel like kids. When Paul stumbles through his date with Aster, there’s a sweetness to simply how she looks at him. A lesser performance might have played her up more. Here, she’s somewhere between a polite and sly grin. It’s charming without being cloying. All three have that quality and the film largely avoids the broad stereotypes (with one main exception) that overpower so many films of this genre.
The Half of It is an excellent teen romance. It’s smart and funny, but it also has something to say about its characters and small-town life. There’s more to both. The Cyrano de Bergerac tale is based upon a real person, but with myth weaved in. At its best moments this film feels the same—real with some myth weaved in.