After 16 long years out of the limelight, writer/director Alice Wu returns to filmmaking with a coming-of-age story that is charming, emotional, poignant and, evidently, deeply personal. The Half of It follows Ellie Chu, a teenager who helps a jock write a love letter and who then befriends the jock and falls for his crush.
This is not your everyday coming-of-age romantic story, and Alice Wu lets you know that in the opening moments. It’s an intelligent film that doesn’t hinge on all of the tiring tropes of the genre, rather, it takes risks and forges a bold story which is what makes it so refreshing. It’s elegantly paced, touches on some delicate ideas and doesn’t follow the straight and narrow, leaving plenty of room for surprise as the story progresses. The emotion and the strength of the various relationships are what drive the story forward. There are a number character relationships within the main cast that each bring a different dynamic to the story, making every scene feel fresh.
The focus of the story and the main relationships are all laid out within the first 5-10 minutes, allowing the story to kick into gear early and giving the film time to deeply explore these characters and develop them over the course of the film. It threw me through a bit of an emotional rollercoaster but never fails to bring a radiant charm to lighten the mood again, and left me with a massive grin on my face more times than not. It explores some complex themes and touches on some smart ideas and messages, but overall, it’s the fact that this film isn’t afraid to be different that really sets it apart. It kicks off telling you that it’s going to defy the common tropes and be different, and it delivers on that front throughout the entire film.
The writing of each and every character so intricate and detailed that it makes everyone, even those who are rarely featured, feel like a main character. Every character is linked to a couple of other characters in a way that gives them room to interact differently and develop with one character in a way they might not with another. There’s just so many emotional connections drawn through the film that it’s actually incredible that Alice Wu has manages to turn this into a wholly coherent story.
When it comes to the cast, there are so many great performances to highlight alongside the incredible writing. Leah Lewis is just fantastic in the lead role. She has this instant likability that hits the moment we’re first introduced to her. It’s imperative to the story that this character gives off an innocent vibe and Leah does this incredibly well. She’s the life of the film and always livens up the screen for her quick dialogue and ability to click with every other performance. Daniel Diemer plays Paul, the jock, but he plays a very different jock to what you’d normally expect. There’s a sense of awkwardness that Daniel sells really well through every scene, but he also pulls off these moments of confidence that are very in line with his character. That duality that he brings to the performance is very well done.
Alexxis Lemire is also amazing as the love interest, Aster Flores. She puts in an absolutely beautiful performance that is very subtle and subdued, but still has a major impact on the film. For an up-and-coming star who’s only been part of a few projects, she displays immense talent and I can’t wait to see how she is in other types of projects. Then you have performances from Becky Ann Baker (Mrs. Geselschap) and Colin Chou (Edwin Chu) that are very impactful despite only appearing in a handful of scenes. How these two impact those who they interact with is evident through a number of scenes that they don’t even appear in.
One detail I liked is how Alice Wu handles the character played by Wolfgang Novogratz. He’s been typecast into this ‘obnoxious jock’ role a couple of times, and what I like here is how he’s sidelined in favour of highlighting the jock character played by Daniel Diemer. Even when he does play a small part in the story, he doesn’t really play into the cliche jock traits and is also shoved out of the scene just as quick as he’s thrown in. It’s like Alice is having him show up, just so she can kick him out and make more of a point that this isn’t that type of story.
In the end, The Half of It has everything that makes a top-notch coming-of-age story, and it’s all executed perfectly by Alice Wu. This is a refreshingly different story that takes risks and forges a path that intrigues you with uncertainty right through to the final moments. It’s pleasant, charming, emotional, heartwarming and an absolute joy to watch. There’s nothing I would change about this movie. It’s clear that Alice had a vision for the story she wanted to tell, one that had shades of her own life weaved in, and she’s told it in the best way she could. I highly recommend checking this one out on Netflix.