The Half of It is now streaming on Netflix.
By Palmer Rubin
One of the oldest tropes in the book is the “Cyrano De Bergerac” plotline. Two people are into the same person and one of them, the less socially acceptable one, helps the more socially accepted one win over this other person with letters and other romantic gestures, then complications ensue. In the play itself, the titular Cyrano doesn’t believe he could ever get his first cousin (yikes) Roxanne to fall in love with him because of his comically large nose, but Ellie Chu doesn’t try because she’s the only gay girl in a town full of hardcore Catholics. Cyrano helps his fellow French soldier Christian win over Roxanne by imitating his voice and hiding in the shadows, but Ellie does so with well-placed text messages hiding next to a Waffle House rip-off. Funniest of all is that, if the film’s director is to be believed, this film wouldn’t have existed at all without a friend threatening to give some of her money to the NRA if she didn’t finish the screenplay in a month.
Cyrano De Bergerac is, full stop, my favorite play, primarily because I also have a large nose. It doesn’t help that it’s a play about unrequited love and panache and a lot of elements that, in retrospect, are unbelievably corny. I think part of what Alice Wu figures out here is that such grand gestures are so utterly vulnerable and yet silly that only teenagers would think it to be the end-all be-all of their lives. This is why most adaptations of Cyrano fall flat on their faces. People pushing 40 pulling these kinds of stunts look very disturbing, whereas teenagers, in the full flush of hormones, believe it to be the most important mission of their lives. The Steve Martin vehicle Roxanne is atrocious only because it doesn’t seem to recognize how creepy his behavior is the entire way, the damn thing might as well be a proto-incel anthem. And the less said about the cringey Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, Netflix’s previous attempt to make this exact plotline, the better. That film is borderline unwatchable, so it’s a minor miracle that this is as effective as it is. As a professed uber-fan of the original play, you better believe me when I say that in spite of its problems, this is the strongest adaptation yet.
Ellie Chu helps pay the bills by ghostwriting people’s essays and research papers, allowing her opportunities to openly express her views on literature and philosophy. Her English teacher openly encourages this so she has something fun to read, Ellie’s wealthier (and whiter) neighbors get to get into good colleges with next to no effort, and Ellie herself can have the minimal amount of social interaction required for survival. Such a film would normally resort to stock archetype bullies, but I was very grateful to see that this film simply have most characters ignoring Ellie outright unless they need something from her or if they want to scream racial slurs at her from the cars their parents brought them. The film almost explicitly highlights the way in which Ellie is held back from the things that come easily to other people in spite of her clearly working harder. A good work ethic is not enough in America, but these bits of social commentary are subtle enough that those who have an allergic reaction to the word “politics” won’t have their sensibilities threatened too much. I suspect, that being said, that those same people will probably despise this film, and it’s their loss.
Ellie has a problem: her reputation has proceeded her and she’s suddenly accosted by a jock called Paul Munsky, demanding that he help her write love letters to his dream girl, the ultra-Christian, goody-goody, hardcore conservative Aster Flores, whose pastor father makes a living egging on his congregation onto reveries of homophobic nastiness. The problem, inevitably, is that this is the girl Ellie herself has been crushing on the whole time, but her self-loathing is so severe that she plays into this masochistic game, with the completely oblivious Paul not understanding her actual intentions. Ellie herself being a progressive atheist doesn’t really help matters much, but it’s a tale as old as time if you’ve ever had feelings for someone you otherwise knew you had nothing in common with. I personally believe in God, but I also believe that he/she/they has a wicked sense of humor when it comes to most of the people we find ourselves attracted to. How this plays out with Aster will ultimately sting if you’ve ever had a particular dynamic with someone who deigns to be around you despite disliking something about yourself you can’t and shouldn’t change.
This largely eliminates most of the issues with the play it’s adapted from by no longer making any of them blood relatives and a few other changes I don’t want to spoil here. But a lot of it is the closeness between Paul and Ellie despite their disparate backgrounds, and that there’s way more to Aster than either of them realized, that result in their mutual discovery that she’s as multifaceted and flawed as they are, go figure! A lot of the interplay between Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer is the film’s primary engine and the source of most of its momentum, and the two bounce off of each other so well that it almost makes up for the places in which the film stumbles.
I’m not exaggerating about those two in particular. At first, you can’t possibly understand why these two would want to be friends. Ellie can be prickly and fires off references at a mile a minute, and Paul is so comically and adorably dumb that he literally can’t keep up. But eventually, the dynamic clicks into place, and you see that Ellie’s arrogance and Paul’s stupidity are intentional covers for their own more sensitive soft spots, and that’s when the two really connect. The film’s version of Cyrano’s most famous scene is done entirely with social media, a scene that absolutely should not work, and somehow, is probably the best scene in the whole thing with how well it adapts one of theater’s great monologues into an accessible format. It captures the sheer overwhelming awkwardness of a first crush, and confusing any rush of hormones as a sign that you’ve found your soulmate. Both Ellie and Paul talk about love in metrics that are so comically overblown that you will feel immensely called out and yet love them both dearly, and it’s clear that writer/director Alice Wu is intentionally having them both have this absurd view. Again, I am betraying the theater nerd in me just writing about this.
Part of the film’s ultimate throughline is (and this goes without saying) that perhaps romantic love on its own isn’t exactly the healthiest of mindsets with which we pursue relationships with one another. The film doesn’t skimp on the fact that Ellie is both an Asian woman in a town full of predominantly white people, or that she’s the only gay person in a town more or less designed from the ground up to demonize the LGBT community at any opportunity it gets. But I also like that the usual coming-of-age tropes that get so cringey are almost nowhere to be found here, even as the film takes us to Ellie’s first party, or the climatic talent show. Most times it feels like the film is going to fall into a cliche pitfall, it deftly avoids it with some degree of self-awareness. The usual trope of the all-important football game does not hinge around whether or not they win but simply whether or not anyone on the team scores for the first time in over a decade. It’s the little touches like that, how the town is inexplicably called Squahamish, Paul’s family being full of multiple generations of butchers who exclusively make bratwurst, these elements that make it feel more surreal than your typical teenage rom-com. And the film clearly feels indebted to those who came before, including possibly the funniest parody of Mean Girls I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s not as explicitly comedic (and ultimately has a lot more to say than that ever did), but it’s packed to the gills with references in ways that make sure the audience gets the joke even if said audience member hasn’t seen or read what it’s referencing.
That being said, as it begins to head to its inevitable endpoint, it does stumble in terms of resolving the awkward love triangle between the three of them that ultimately develops. It’s not a spoiler to say that I was really worried that Ellie and Paul would eventually end up competing for Aster’s affections, and the actual resolution isn’t what I expected at all. I was also really worried that the film would have the Chasing Amy-style twist where the queer character was actually straight the entire time, and it luckily subverts this as well. But getting there involves a few awkward scenes of characters monologuing to the entire cast all at once that feels like something out of a South Park episode, and it’s those moments where the film grinds to a halt. You get the impression that Alice Wu wasn’t entirely sure how to get there, and it’s a shame after the strong sense of direction she’s exhibited until this point. She herself is a queer Asian filmmaker and the film clearly comes from a lot of her own personal experiences integrated with Edmond Rostand’s play, but I wish there was a more succinct way for all of this to happen. Pretty much any moment that involves that or a really awkward subplot involving Ellie’s dead mother largely do not work, and the film could’ve lost that bloat and been far stronger for it. But again, these are all things you can know about the film without me spoiling it for you.
But luckily, those moments are only a small percentage out of a film that’s otherwise a lot stronger overall than I was expecting it to be. It’s a highly flawed film in a lot of ways, and I wish it spent more time addressing Ellie’s dynamic with Aster herself, as for two romantic interests, they spend comparatively very little time together and it can often be confusing as to why they talk so closely despite barely interacting in person. But it’s a film that understands how to reference other forms of media without insulting anyone’s intelligence, often positing that people’s nostalgic consumption of media from any time period is effectively a way to alienate yourself and protect yourself from other people. Watching Charlie Chaplin movies makes you just as immature as basing your entire identity on the MCU, insulting people for not knowing who Albert Camus is might as well sound like you’re sounding off about the Star Wars sequels. It’s not to say that Ellie is wrong for enjoying these things, it’s just that it’s another defense mechanism put in place, and it is possible to both appreciate Sartre and not punish people for not being properly educated about philosophy. But the film does this without a judgement of Ellie’s character, and it’s not often a film depicts such a deeply insecure character without making them overly cruel as we normally see insecurity depicted. Sometimes, an insecurity in oneself is just that, and that’s okay, and we can still clearly see what a kind and compassionate person Ellie is in a lot of other ways. Somehow, it does all this without feeling like it’s massaging Alice Wu’s own ego, and she’s self-critical without being self-deprecating. Very few directors can manage that. So in spite of the flaws, I can’t help but respect the hell out of this movie. It’s an effective love story, but it’s not necessarily about falling in love.
That being said: Leah Lewis has delivered the single best performance of the year so far, and it’s a shame the movie as a whole can’t keep up with her.