Netflix’s catalogue hosts a large range of teenage romantic comedies, films usually based on archetypes who parrot dumbed-down lines about the “important” parts of high school without experiencing a lot of character growth. They’re short and predictable, and because their sole purpose is entertainment, they start to blur together. But when a teen film goes beyond simple entertainment, it stands out. This is what makes Netflix’s latest teen movie, “The Half of It,” so special and important: it takes the typical teen movie format and turns it into something more.
“The Half of It” seems like something we’ve heard before. It’s set in a small town in the USA, where people know of each other without ever really knowing each other. The community values religion and conventionality; those who stand out are frowned upon. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis, “Nancy Drew”) is a classic fish out of water, closed off to her classmates who she struggles to connect with. After some pushback, she agrees to help Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer, “Sacred Lies”), a sweet, simple boy, write a love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire, “The Art of Murder”), a classic faraway crush. Despite her own growing feelings for Aster, Ellie helps Paul try to impress Aster through the power of language and understanding, and all three go through a journey of connection that challenges their perceptions.
But even with the background of mild catfishing, there’s a lot about this film that is new: most importantly, representation. Ellie is a character we don’t see enough of in films and television: Whip-smart and musically talented, but also multi-faceted and introspective. She’s one of the only people of color in her small town, and she speaks Mandarin at home with her father Edwin (Collin Chou, “The Matrix Reloaded”), whose struggles with English have led to struggles with employment. Ellie is well-read, and her way with words has led to her prolific essay-writing business. She’s shamelessly intelligent (other than the fact that she only charges $10 for a three-page essay), but she’s always felt like the odd one out in her hometown, whether it’s because of her race, intelligence, sexuality or all of the above.
The film struggles with pacing at times, where time feels a bit too fluid. A lot of things seem to happen in a short amount of time, and parts of the story become confused and chaotic. That said, watching Ellie shed her walls and open up to people is wonderful to watch. Ellie and Paul connect over cram sessions, old movies and furtive meetings despite being polar opposites. Ellie is mature for her age and brusque with anyone who isn’t her father. Paul is the classic lovable dope, who claims to be bad with words but occasionally drops gems like, “Isn’t that what love is? How much effort you put into loving someone?” Despite being the subject of a love triangle and occasionally seeming a bit too good to be true, Aster is refreshingly fleshed-out; Aster and Ellie’s connection as they ponder life and love is undeniable, even if Aster doesn’t know the truth of who’s writing the letters. The connections between characters are the heart of the story. Ellie and Aster connect over their love of literature and feeling out of place. Paul and Ellie’s dad connect over their struggle to articulate their thoughts into words. And Ellie and Paul connect over the simple matter of having someone to talk to and ponder their place in the world.
“The Half of It” is a teen movie that defies the genre. Regardless of any issues with pacing, the story created by director/screenwriter Alice Wu (“Saving Face”) is uniquely real and relatable. It’s a story that deals with conflict, whether it’s the reconciliation of beliefs or dealing with the subtle racism of being one of the only people of color in a small town. It’s an LGBTQ story that hinges on identity that doesn’t feel strong armed or unrealistic. The colors of the setting may be muted, but the language of the script is beautiful and vibrant, with lines that you want to hold close and moments that come satisfyingly full-circle. The film is not exactly a romance, but it is a film about love in various forms, about friendship and connection and finding the people that make you feel more complete.