The Half of It

 

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Cyrano de Bergerac is reinvented as an astute and intensely touching coming-of-age romance with a difference. 

 
Half of It, The

No half measures: Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire

 

Alice Wu’s achingly romantic film opens with a line from Plato: “Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole.” Wu, who directs from her own script, also quotes Oscar Wilde: “'In love, one always starts by deceiving oneself, and ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.” Most of the best lines, though, are cited by Wu’s protagonist, the bright, shy and bookish Ellie Chu (the pretty, bravura Leah Lewis), who just doesn’t get it. “In case you haven’t guessed,” she tells us, “this is not a love story.” On one level, she is right. Romance is not the half of it. But love permeates every pore of the movie, in a myriad of ways.

 

Ellie Chu may not know much about the machinery of dating, but the 17-year-old, straight-A student knows something about people, albeit at arm’s length. Living at home with her widowed father, Edwin Chu (Collin Chou), a station master transfixed by classic black-and-white movies, Ellie is rather off the social map. But her peers are happy to pay her to write up their homework, and with bills to pay, she needs the dosh. However, a different proposition comes her way when the dumb jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) asks her to pen a love letter to his intended, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Aster, though, is already taken – by none other than the school’s most eligible stud, Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz). But maybe Ellie understands Aster more than either Paul or even Trig realise…

 

It’s been thirty-three years since Steve Martin updated Cyrano de Bergerac with his clever, crowd-pleasing Roxanne. And, while there have been other celluloid versions of Rostand's 1897 verse play, Alice Wu’s sly, modern take on the premise is the most satisfying yet. The Californian Wu, whose first and last film was the critically applauded Saving Face (2004) sixteen years ago, has been biding her time, and more’s the pity. The Half of It is so damned good it makes one cry. There’s not a familiar face in the cast, yet every performance is spot-on, fresh and nuanced. All things being equal, we should be seeing a lot more of these performers.

 

Top of the class is the Chinese-American Leah Lewis, who is at once funny, wry and heart-breaking – and can sing and play the guitar as well. It wasn’t long after the movie had started that I made a note to see it again, if only to disentangle the intriguing narrative strands and to revisit the exquisite dialogue. While Alice Wu may have been born in 1970, her grasp of modern jargon and her crisp directorial flourishes betray the mien of a filmmaker half her age. It is just a delight to watch, to absorb and to listen to (Anton Sanko's score is another bonus). From the animated prologue to the conversion of stock characters into more complex human beings, the film is a juggling act that keeps its balls in the air without a false step or dull moment. “If I knew what love was,” says Ellie, “I would quote myself.” And that is her appeal – she is brilliantly naïve, or maybe naively brilliant.

 

But even as The Half of It is sweet, funny, inventive, smart and deeply touching, it is also acutely relevant to today’s world. Like such recent coming-of-age high school romcoms as Love, Simon and Booksmart, it is shifting old goal posts with a gust of fresh air. And while its modernity should appeal to members of Generation Z, its cultural reach embraces an older demographic, whose members should lap up the climactic homage to The Graduate. There’s something here for everyone. Having failed last year to honour Lulu Wang’s sublime The Farewell, the American Academy better not overlook this Asian-American gem.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire, Collin Chou, Enrique Murciano, Wolfgang Novogratz, Catherine Curtin, Becky Ann Baker, Gabi Samels.

 

Dir Alice Wu, Pro Anthony Bregman, M. Blair Breard and Alice Wu, Screenplay Alice Wu, Ph Greta Zozula, Pro Des Sue Chan, Ed Ian Blume and Lee Percy, Music Anton Sanko, Costumes Victoria Farrell.

 

Likely Story-Netflix.

104 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 1 May 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 12.