The Half of It, a Netflix original, was writer and director Alice Wu’s second movie after 2004’s Saving Face. It is a loose modern interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac with an LGBTQ twist. This movie put Cyrano on my to-read list, sadly the movie is not on my recommended list. Leah Lewis does a wonderful job portraying Ellie Chu. Daniel Diemer also puts in a great performance as Paul Munsky. The acting is great, but the story is not up to par.
In Cyrano de Bergerac, the female love interest receives well-composed letters from one man but believes them to be from a much more handsome man. The Half of It still has a female love interest, but the writer is also a female and the imposter is male. The letter writing is accomplished via text message. This reimagining is clever and certainly gives LGBTQ audiences a teen movie they can relate to and easily find on Netflix.
Wu included a multitude of other plot elements that were not so clever. The tiny town, which shrinks and grows as you go from school to church, is deeply religious. For some reason, there is an elderly pastor who has a random outburst mid-service. The competent head of the church is married with children, yet the church contains a confessional. I was under the belief that only Catholics had confessional and that men of the cloth could not marry. This church does seem to be one that believes a same-sex relationship is a sin. Mentions of God are casually tossed in here and there, but there are no big philosophical debates about it despite everyone’s religious devotion. It seems like a half-baked concept in the movie.
Ellie, the text message composer, lives with her widower father, who has a Ph.D. from China but works at a signal house for the town's train station. He is in a deep depression over the loss of his wife, Ellie’s mother, several years earlier. The father-daughter relationship is not explored enough. Her father does develop a relationship with Paul, the imposter, that is endearing. I wanted more exploration of the relationship between Ellie and her father.
The biggest issue with the movie is how Aster, the object of Paul and Ellie’s desire, seemingly has no idea that Ellie is writing her. Ellie is well-known in the school for writing other people’s papers for a fee. She is known to be well-read and intelligent. Paul is a bit of a jock with a limited vocabulary. Ellie and Aster do converse with each other from time to time during the movie. I have no idea how Aster is not putting two and two together to figure out Ellie is the author of the texts. It is not believable that Aster could be under the impression that Paul is such a terrible speaker but a wonderful writer.
To nit-pick a little bit more, there is a scene where Aster and Ellie hang out in a hot spring. In the first shot of Aster after she undresses, she has thin bra straps on her shoulders. The next time we see her, she has no bra straps. The final time we see her, she is floating on her back with a shirt on. Meanwhile, Ellie is fully clothed with long underwear. Aster even points out the fact that Ellie is wearing long underwear. Do not point out costumes if you are going to mess up their continuity!
I wanted to like this movie more than I did. It started off strong, but as new elements were introduced to the plot it started heading downhill. For a movie with so much time spent on train tracks, it could have stuck to the rails better. I am interested in what Taco Sausage is, but just putting a sausage in a tortilla is not very creative. Maybe it is seasoned in a more classic taco way, we will never know. Ellie and Paul develop a wonderful relationship and do not fall in love with each other. That is a good subversion to the classic romantic comedy. I wish the movie spent more time exploring their friendship.
Netflix is doing a good job of bringing female and minority writers and directors to broader audiences. Casts are getting more diverse and stories are becoming more inclusive. All of that is a great step forward for movies in general. I want to see more movies like this, but I also want them to be better. This is a good movie for teens questioning their sexuality, especially girls. More relatable movies for more of the populous are always better than fewer, now we just need to raise the quality of the stories.