While Hollywood slept, Netflix took over the teen romantic comedy.
“The Kissing Booth,” “Tall Girl,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Alex Strangelove,” “The Perfect Date” –all have streamed into our homes since the last decent high school romance hit theaters.
And “The Half of It” just adds to the list. It’s another “Cyrano de Bergerac” adapted to a modern school setting (“#Roxy” got there first). Touching and funny, awkward and wistful, it’s also evidence of a Hollywood crime.
It’s only the second feature film writer-director Alice Wu has gotten to make. The lesbian rom-com “Saving Face” was a gay film festival favorite over 16 years ago.
“Half of It” is similarly understated and under-sexualized, despite the sweeping changes in the culture of the past decade. But “understated” and subtle points any screen romance in the right direction.
It’s all about the longing, stupid.
Leah Lewis is Ellie Chu, a 17 year-old whose life in Squahamish, Washington, is solitary and literary, perhaps not by choice. She manages the railroad switchman’s apartment provided to her and her widowed dad (Collin Chou), who has let the loss of his wife and his inability to master English close-off his life.
The bills aren’t getting paid, which has led the smart girl the “cool kids” nickname “Chugga chugga CHU CHU” into writing duller kids’ papers and doing their homework for her — for cash.
But that’s not why “second string tight-end” Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) to hassle her for help. He’s crushing on the prettiest girl in school, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie kind of gets that. Pretty girl is hard to make eye contact with for boys or girls. But being stressed and brittle and maybe a little bitter, she’s not writing love letters — “I thought’d it be romantic!” — for him.
“Get a thesaurus. And spellcheck. Good luck, Romeo!”
It isn’t pity for the monobrow that makes her agree to be his Cyrano, writing sweet nothings to slip into her locker and win her heart. She needs to pay the power bill.
“$50. One letter.”
That’s how it starts, cribbing sentiments from the old film romances (“Casablanca,” “Wings of Desire,” “The Philadelphia Story”) her dad watches, nonstop. But Aster is hip to the plagiarism, and calls “him” on it.
“It’s like a game,” Ellie decides. “She’s challenging us!”
So. Game on.
It happens slowly but totally, this tumble down the rabbit hole of “reconnaissance” — finding out Aster’s into art, old movies and “The Remains of the Day” — book and film.
“Oppo research” means checking out the popular dimpled, dimwitted jock Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz) Aster is linked to.
And keeping this all epistolary means Paul, via Ellie, can court Aster via a shared graffiti project (taking turns adding to a painting, each challenging the other as they do), dishing back and forth by letter as they do.
It also means Ellie’s sullen shell starts to soften. Paul’s not well-read, but he’s sweet. He’s the newest cook in the family sausage business, and figures his future’s “the sausage taco.”
Maybe that’s why his crush on Aster is so very deep — “She’s pretty, smart, never mean. And she smells like fresh ground flour!”
Paul gets past Ellie’s curt description of her mother — “Young. Funny. Dead.” But what he’s not seeing is how she’s forgetting to charge him, how into this she is, how she might be talking to her one reliable confidante in life, that one special teacher (Betty Ann Baker) about “this one person who ‘gets’ me.”
She’s not talking about Paul, or Trig either.
The stage-managing of Aster and Paul’s “dates” via text, the back and forth of the letters and texts, the reluctant prep for the “mandatory” senior “talent show” participation, all give away Ellie’s game.
All this “longing” she’s writing letters, lecturing Paul and narrating interior monologues about? It’s hers.
There are more laugh-out-loud moments in this 100 minute than in that entire high school sitcom that Mindy Kaling did for Netflix. And “Half of It” is, if anything, more inclusive than Kaling’s series “Never Have I Ever.”
The one-liners are smarter and fresher. Agnostic Ellie plays the organ at Aster’s dad’s church. “This whole TOWN fears God,” teacher Mrs. Geselschap (Baker) cracks. “You know who GOD fears? The teacher’s union!”
Ellie whispers her last instructions to Paul before “the big date” in a high school huddle form that he can understand. “Are. You. READY?”
But the standout feature of “The Half of It” is the emotional nature of the script, and emotional accessibility of the performances. No, nobody here is high school age (Lewis has been working as an actress since 2005). But you forget that when you see how Ellie loses herself in Aster’s eyes.
What don’t work are several tropes of the genre. The football story thread is played, the “senior talent show” bit feels phony, but redeems itself via brevity.
And as cute as the quotes from Plato and Satre and Oscar Wilde are that introduce each “chapter” in the story, we’re over them long before they’re over.
But Wu has relaunched her career (hopefully) by managing what many a Netflix teen rom-com filmmaker aims for, not a grand slam, but a solid, uplifting stand-up triple.
Considering the age of cast, she might get a (college years) sequel out of “The Half of It,” if nothing else.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language and teen drinking.
Cast: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire, Collin Chou, Becky Ann Baker, Wolfgang Novogratz
Credits: Written and directed by Alice Wu. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:44