Netflix is saving us again from our isolated, dreary existences with a peppy romantic comedy. You know the kind they churn out: teens, love triangles, meet-cutes…platonic friendships, queer relationships, protagonists that aren’t white, Sartre quotes. Okay, The Half of It isn’t like every other rom-com they offer up, but it isn’t exactly unlike it, either. It’s a mix of the fresh and the familiar in the best way possible, a balance that seems to be writer/director Alice Wu’s sweet spot.
To be honest, I hadn’t checked out her previous film, Saving Face, until the day The Half of It dropped. I had heard about it, intended to get around to it, but of course only did when my back was against the wall. And honestly, I’m kind of glad I waited, because the one-two punch of genre beats hit so squarely made for an ultra satisfying day.
At first glance, you might expect Saving Face to be the more mature of the two works. It’s about adults, after all, and the tough position of a closeted twentysomething being forced to live with her disgraced mom while stumbling into a serious relationship. It’s as much about a mother and daughter and the complications of immigrant families as it is a romance, which adds some depth to what Wu clearly wanted to be a feel-good movie.
Much of this carries over into The Half of It, where Ellie (Leah Lewis) has all sorts of extra burdens thanks to her father’s halting English and subsequent inability to move up in his work. She’s also got a crush on the Kazuo Ishiguro reading, Wim Wenders watching town pretty girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire), which develops into full-blown love when doofy Paul (Daniel Diemer) employs her to write wooing correspondences on his behalf. The two pining teens become friends, of course, and the girl shows interest in both of them, of course, and so you have a classic rom-com setup with just the slightest of twists.
There’s an astuteness to the way Wu plays with convention here, showing a stone cold understanding for what the audience expects, needs, and will let her drop. We all want the tease; we all want to start singing Kiss the Girl as the flirtation draws out, and she gives us all those moments with unabashed glee. Where she renders a slight challenge is her refusal to write off Aster as some prop in their game, and while this is hinted at in the film’s opening, far too many rom-coms end with the girl being won over by actions that are, quite frankly, major relationship red flags for me to fully trust the genre. Don’t get me wrong, Aster is still a fantasy instead of a believable teen, but she lives up to the hype of her thoughtful intelligence.
The film really exists between Ellie and Paul, who fumble through their friendship with a breezy charm that makes it impossible not to root for them as a platonic pair. Diemer lays on just the right amount of good ‘ol boyness that makes both him and the slightly backwards small town they live in appealing (Aster at one point describes him as “safe”, which is perfect), while Lewis hits all the slouchy, tentative signposts of a closeted teen one expects. That Wu makes their relationship the film’s center is what allows her to get away with making Aster an intelligent character, because in the end you have so many relationships to root for that when some inevitably slip away others are there to lift you back up.
That small towness is the only thing that feels truly off in The Half of It, if only because it’s employed to give the film its repressive air. Ellie’s sexuality, race, and religious views are all either unspeakable or frowned upon, and while that is still true to a certain extent of small-town America, I’m not sure these things exist so starkly anymore. But I’m also far removed from my high school years in a small town, so what do I know?
Besides that, pretty much everything about The Half of It clips along beautifully, giving you all the sweet charm of your favorite rom-coms while also giving you some thoughtful meditation on what love is (even if it is filtered through teens). If, like me, you think the best genre fare are the ones that can deliver and push forward at the same time, then you’ll find this is among the best offerings we’ve gotten in years.