The romantic comedy was never really supposed to be original. The genre has a few simple narrative templates, many of them several centuries old. Cinematically speaking, artistry and charm are found, instead, in elements like atmosphere, style, wit, or chemistry. And, of course, the honesty with which a film handles that central force of all human existence: desire. Alice Wu’s The Half of It is a fine example of all this. It’s yet another riff on Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, one of the most overused comic-romantic prototypes of all time, but it’s so tenderhearted and transporting, its characters so likable, that you can’t help but want to give the movie and everyone in it a big hug.
The story takes place in a Pacific Northwestern town called Squahamish (pronounced like you might say “squeamish” while a sneeze is coming on) and follows one Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a Chinese-American straight-A student who’s developed a small cottage industry writing her not terribly bright classmates’ essays for them. Ellie is so much smarter than everyone else that her English teacher is well aware of the girl’s side gig; the teacher just allows it because the alternative, reading these dopes’ actual essays, would be so much worse.
One day, Ellie is approached by Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a kind, dim, and lupine-featured football player whose family’s sausage shop is next door to the station house where she and her father (Collin Chou) live. Paul wants Ellie to write a letter, in his name of course, to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the most beautiful girl in school. Ellie, who is herself secretly attracted to Aster, reluctantly pens a message in which she lifts a line from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire. When Aster immediately gets the reference, Ellie becomes more committed to the endeavor: Here’s a girl whose frustration with the unexamined life in this backwater seems to match her own. (Never mind that the backwater is actually shot rather beautifully. Wu, whose previous film Saving Face, made an infuriating 15 years ago, immersed us in the Chinese-American community of Flushing, New York, has a real gift for bringing a setting to life.)
And so, Ellie and Aster — under the ridiculous premise that the comically inarticulate Paul is somehow writing these words — enter into an elaborate exchange that references great authors, history, art theory, and the inchoate need to escape their current reality. The movie actually breezes through these early Rostandian plot points, so much so that you might wonder if we’re being set up for some sort of eventual twist that will send things in a more shocking direction. That twist doesn’t come, but the story does eventually enter more interesting territory: Paul, whom we were initially led to believe was just an ignorant dolt, proves himself a stand-up dude, and some of his dumb ideas — such as a “sausage taco” — even turn out to be somewhat inspired. As he and Ellie work harder and harder to woo Aster, the more Paul himself starts to fall for his partner in romantic crime, unaware that she’s queer. Through Paul, Ellie starts to come out of her shell. And Aster, who seems practically betrothed to another, even dumber football player, starts to wonder about her own future.
We get so involved in the airy perfection of this correspondence and all that it opens up that the duplicity slips away and the human connection becomes downright metaphysical, a precocious teen’s dream of a better world. As filmed by Wu, the screen lights up with ornate words, pictures, and text messages, all of it contributing to a kind of dream life, one where these people’s words help transcend their mundane, dead-end milieu. In one late scene, two characters float in a pool of water, listening to music and talking of loneliness, God, and the future; their shimmering reflections hint at an alternate reality where things are less confusing, where hopes are realized. In most good rom-coms you fall in love with the characters; in The Half of It you fall in love with their sheer longing.
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