Ellie Chu is a small-town Cyrano, with a twist, in Netflix original “The Half of It,” which could well be the most literary high school movie to come along in the short lives of its adolescent audience — and not just because writer-director Alice Wu was loosely inspired by a late-19th-century French play that most teens won’t have read (although they might have seen “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” which also drew from Edmond Rostand). “The Half of It” qualifies as literary because it loves language; it relishes reading, respects writing and believes in the power of words to make skeptics fall in love.
Right, no need to get all purple about it. What’s this about a twist, you ask?
Well, “The Half of It” hews pretty close to a handful of teen movie genres. It belongs to the “Clueless” tradition, of course, transposing a classic romance to the hormonal petri dish of adolescence. There’s the John Hughes-ian dimension, offering yet another comic take on the social hierarchy of high school and how various characters fit into (and challenge) the pecking order. There’s the familiar “greener pastures” angle, in which the goal is for a picked-on caterpillar to escape her conservative cocoon and become the big-city butterfly she was meant to be. And then there’s the representation aspect, which shakes up those other formulas in interesting ways.
In “Cyrano de Bergerac,” two dudes share a love for the same woman, but Cyrano knows his nose is a deal breaker, and so he agrees to assist his rival in seducing Roxane. Here, the Roxane character is a new-to-school Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), inwardly artistic but outwardly the stuff of which muses are made. That’s conventional enough, although Wu rethinks the Cyrano role, making it closeted Chinese American 17-year-old Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), who agrees to ghost-write love letters on behalf of her thickheaded classmate Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), both of whom are sweet on Aster.
There’s an outdated, unflattering nickname — it rhymes with “grab bag” — for the kind of hetero amiga who gravitates to gay men, but movies almost never depict the inverse: a straight guy who hits it off with a young lesbian. That means “The Half of It” isn’t nearly so constrained by cliché, with the advantage that Wu is free to explore this dynamic — one that, according to a director’s statement Netflix issued alongside the press notes, the “Saving Face” helmer has experienced in her own life, but struggled to translate into a film (16 years passed between the two features).
In the end, the Cyrano storyline isn’t nearly so engaging — or sincere — as the dynamic between Ellie and Paul. She’s a band geek who writes her classmates’ English papers for a fee; he’s a football jock who can barely form a coherent sentence. There’s no reason these two would become besties, except he needs someone to punch up the love note he’s written to Aster, and she needs the $50 he’s willing to pay. It’s hard to believe anyone could be quite so dense as Paul — or as poetic as Ellie — in high school, and yet, whatever clicks between them feels real, and so lovingly rendered that it upstages the movie’s romantic A-plot, which continues as the inarticulate but endearing sod leans on Ellie to keep up the charade with many more letters.
The seeming mismatch between Paul and Ellie can be found in a million high school friendships, wherein tight-knit bonds form over something more meaningful or personal than sharing the same race, class or sexual orientation. Maybe they like the same music, or the same movies. These two happen to like the same girl — who’s dating a vaguely defined slab of self-confidence named Trig (played by “Sierra Burgess” alum Wolfgang Novogratz), presumably the school quarterback, although the team hasn’t scored a touchdown in 10 years, so his popularity must come from something else, like his mad dimple-flexing ability. But Aster is deeper than that, and ambiguous enough in her affections that Ellie isn’t discouraged.
“The Half of It” is so bizarrely sexless that it doesn’t matter that Trig plans to propose to Aster. The couple is evidently saving it for marriage. Hormones have everything to do with Paul’s attraction to her as well, although they only ever get as far as first base. And though there’s a scene late in the film in which Ellie and Aster sneak off to a secluded hot spring together, the TV-14-rated movie is coy about just how skinnily they’re actually dipping. Oddly, they add layers as the intimacy between them escalates.
But that seems apt for a movie that aims to be as open-minded about Ellie’s orientation as it is nonjudgmental toward its religious characters. The film’s climactic coming-out scene takes place in church, and though it’s tough to imagine the congregation silently allowing a handful of teenagers to commandeer the service, the setting speaks volumes about the role faith plays in the characters’ actions. Besides, given all the levels of deception that have led to this moment, there’s really no elegant way for Paul and Ellie to come clean about their scheme.
Wu also invests time in Ellie’s home life, where her widowed father (Collin Chou) practices his English by watching classic movies. As those scenes demonstrate, there’s a huge portion of the American adolescent experience that’s been excluded from high school movies. One could see this as an identity politics issue, but from a film critic’s point of view, it comes down to this: Personal stories are stronger stories, representation does matter, and specifics are what make a movie memorable — as in original details like the invention of “taco sausage” or Ellie’s delight at discovering Yakult in the coach’s vending machine.
It’s also made fresh by the myriad literary and cinematic references Wu weaves into Aster’s correspondence with “Paul.” With its slightly nerdy, play-on-wordy title, “The Half of It” alludes to the ancient Greek belief that two-faced humans were separated by the gods, devoting their lives to finding their lost soulmates (if you like the idea, read Plato’s “Symposium,” or check out “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”). Wu’s unique take on teen angst hints at what else we’ve been missing by allowing studios to limit who can tell such stories. If the genre seems played out, or else rife with clichés, it’s a direct result of such exclusion. Expanding the field, as Netflix does, reveals that we still haven’t seen the half of it.