Picture a modernized, queer-teen version of Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the title character is a closeted Chinese-American girl who’s hired by a tongue-tied jock to write love letters to win the heart and mind the high-school queen they both secretly love. That’s the starting point for Alice Wu’s sweetly subversive The Half of It, a romcom (streaming on Netflix starting May 1st) that undercuts Hollywood formula at every turn.
Instead of Paris, where Cyrano is set, this revisionist take on the classic transpires in bluntly un-romantic Squahamish, a dead-end town in Washington state where conformity is king. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a social outcast and dutiful daughter who lives with her widower father (Collin Chou), an engineer with a PhD and an immigrant now reduced to the job of local station master. To help improve his halting English, he watches classic movies on TV. Ellie’s adored mom believed that every song, movie and story had “a best part.” To Dad, the best part of his favorite movie Casablanca is the ending which points to the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That seems out of reach for Ellie, who rides her bike to school while students shout racial slurs and whose life in Squahamish is her own personal version of Sartre’s No Exit. Literary and cinematic allusions are this young woman’s specialty; it’s not every YA comedy that begins with an animated prologue about Plato’s origins of love.
Still, this marginalized bandgeek brings in a few extra bucks by ghost-writing term papers for school dummies. Her English teacher (a fine, feisty Becky Ann Baker) is onto the scam, but too entertained by Ellie’s essays to make a fuss. When football jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) asks her to bring a touch of the poet to the mash note he’s scribbled out for their beautiful fellow student Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie is frankly disgusted. But she decides to help him out. And given that she’s harboring her own hidden crush on Aster, this young woman who has a way with words is more than up to the task.
Just when you think you know where this is going, Wu makes sure you don’t. Despite its fluid sexuality, The Half of It turns out to be less of a love story than a funny, touching and vital look into the nature of friendship. It’s Ellie and Paul who manage to forge a connection, and the actors perform with disarming humor and subtlety. Lewis turns her would-be matchmaker into a riot of conflicting emotions. Hiding behind owlish-glasses, a standoffish gaze and a uniform of sweats and jeans, Ellie lets her feelings pour out in the letters she writes for Paul. And Lewis is an actress with the rare ability to locate the truth in every scene. For one of Paul’s texts, Ellie cribs a line about emotional yearning from Wings of Desire, the film she watches on TV with her dad. “I like Wim Wenders, too,” Aster texts back to Paul, and Ellie is thrilled at being called out by her intellectual equal.
It’s Paul who feels lost in all this. Diemer, a Canadian actor seen in The Man in the High Castle, is a shambling charmer. He relates to Ellie’s dream, not to leave home and pursue college and a career in the arts, but to be his own person by putting his own spin on his family’s meat business — how about a taco sausage? But when Paul mistakes platonic attention for sexual attraction, chaos ensues. It takes a while for Ellie’s interest in Aster to dawn on him. “It’s a sin, you’re going to hell,” he tells her. Wu handles the subject of religion in this conservative community without an ounce of condescension, which adds to the film’s delicacy of feeling. And there’s very little overt sex in this crowdpleaser. Take the dip in a local hot springs that Ellie takes with the buddingly bi-curious Aster, who strips down for the occasion. A mortified Ellie, who stays dressed in layers, explains with a laugh, “I am a Russian doll of clothing.”
Wu, who hasn’t directed a feature since her striking 2004 debut with Saving Face, clearly relates to Ellie and her initial reluctance to strike out on her own. In a recent interview, Wu recalled that she pushed herself by writing a check for $1,000 to the hated NRA and telling a friend to mail it if she didn’t finish the script for The Half of It in five weeks. Their loss is definitely our gain. The gentle touch Wu uses as a filmmaker, which only occasionally drifts into tidiness, does not dull the edges of her quietly revolutionary achievement in telling the story of a young lesbian immigrant’s journey to self-acceptance. In a movie brimming over with the pleasures of the unexpected, that’s the best part.