The Half Of It

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Half Of It
"There's a generosity of spirit here that is increasingly a feature of teenage dramas as writers and directors move away from stereotypes to more complex characters." | Photo: Netflix/KC Bailey

The evergreen story of Cyrano De Bergerac, which has had both traditional retelling's like Jean-Paul Rappenau's Gerard Depardieu starrer and reworkings like Fred Schepisi's Roxanne down the years, gets another trot around the blocks for the modern generation. This time around, writer/director Alice Chu switches the sex of the protagonist and swaps any physical manifestation of outsider status for more cultural and sexual underpinnings.

Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is living in podunk town Squahamish with her widowed dad, whose lack of English has stymied his career, when money woes lead her to start writing letters for nice-but-less-than eloquent football jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) for Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire)... the twist being that it's not just Paul who has a crush on her. Chu shows the almost lazy but heavily ingrained racism that often lurks in small towns everywhere. Ellie isn't bullied on a one-to-one basis - after all, she's the geek who, for cash, is writing most of the essays for the school - but kids like to taunt her with the cry of, "Chugga Chugga Chu" as they drive past her struggling uphill on her bike each day. Already marked out as an 'outsider' on some level, her sexual leanings lead her to pull away from connection as well.

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The director takes a while to get the film's momentum up and running - it starts with an animation about Platonic love, of all things and suffers from a stodgy initial voice-over from Ellie. Although Lewis has a winning screening presence, the tell to show ratio feels all wrong, as though the director isn't sure an audience will 'get it' unless she tells them everything. But Alice Chu's film loosens as it goes, probing at unrequited desire and the importance of friendship in ways that feel fresh and relevant - factors that no doubt helped it to take the US prize at the recent online edition of Tribeca Film Festival and saw it swiftly make its way to Netflix.

There's a generosity of spirit here that is increasingly a feature of teenage dramas as writers and directors move away from stereotypes to more complex characters. Twenty years ago, Paul would most likely have been a typical jock, but here he is shown to have a caring and thoughtful inner life, even if he does find himself tongue-tied. Aster, too, although in the smallest of the three roles, is given plenty of room for characterisation and even Ellie's dad Edwin (Collin Chou) has a small but significant arc of his own that dovetails well with the larger story.

One or two elements feel thrown in and dispensed with rather summarily - not least the hold religious belief can have in a community. Perhaps it's because Chu didn't want her own film to become preachy but a little bit more streamlining wouldn't have hurt. The overall message, of the power of love through friendship, however, shines brightly.

Reviewed on: 30 May 2020
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The Half Of It packshot
A shy Chinese-American straight-A student finds herself helping the school jock woo the girl they both secretly love.

Festivals:

Tribeca 2020

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