It’s been 15 years since writer-director Alice Wu’s last film, SAVING FACE, but she’s back with a bang with a new twist on an old story that just took home the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival.
In THE HALF OF IT, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis, TV’s NANCY DREW) is a high school senior in the fictional Pacific northwest town of Squahamish. Ellie and her dad, the town’s solitary train station manager and signalman, are the town’s only Asians. Though they arrived there ten years earlier from China and their plan was to quickly move on to bigger and better things, mechanical engineering PhDs who don’t speak English very well are not a hotly sought-after commodity. (Really?) Now strapped for cash, Ellie supports the family by ghostwriting her classmates’ essays for pay, an enterprise that at least one of her teachers knows about and quietly condones. One day she is approached by Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer, TV’s SACRED LIES), the town’s dull as mashed potatoes but loveable football jock, to ghostwrite a love letter to Aster Flores (newcomer Alexxis Lemire), the deacon’s pretty but unattainable daughter. Ellie agrees, and as their plan takes shape, the three of them come to learn that rather than trying to find the one person who can complete them, they should be looking for people who can help them grow to be something more than what they are.
As you’ve probably already figured out, THE HALF OF IT is a modern day take on Cyrano de Bergerac but this one has a gay twist thrown in as Ellie starts to develop feelings for Aster as the pair exchanges their views on literature and art. For the most part, the story works thanks to the earnest performances of the three young actors, although some critics have taken Wu to task for not going far enough in portraying the real-life challenges that closeted LGBTQ kids have to deal with. Wu does throw in the influence that the church has on the townspeople but then she quickly abandons it when the kids all put their cards on the table. Yeah, like small-town churches are really supportive of gay teens. I had other problems with the story though. I’ve never understood how the teenagers who live in small towns in movies don’t already know everything about each other. How is it that Ellie and Aster have been in the same year at school for ten years but they’ve never met? It makes even less sense when you consider that Ellie plays the piano every Sunday at Aster’s father’s church. Even more unrealistic is that these teens seem to live in a time bubble where they look, dress and drive cars from the late ’80 or early ’90s, and where they have to look up how to know if you’re “a gay”. Although they’re all fully adept at instant messaging and using money transfer apps, they’re absolute dunces when it comes to knowing the first thing about LGBTQ people. Finally, Ellie seems to be punching way below her weight when she considers going to Grinnell College in Iowa after graduating high school. The Chinese immigrant child of a PhD who can write six different term papers on Plato would not consider going to Grinnell, as good a liberal arts school as it is. If her issue is that she doesn’t want to move too far away from father, there is at least one better school that’s closer to the west coast but given that her father has a lousy, low paying job, what’s keeping him in Squahamish anyway? With her grades, she can go anywhere and take him with her.
But perhaps I’m picking nits. If you’re looking for something new and refreshing to watch while you’re stuck at home, you could do worse than THE HALF OF IT. At least it’s got its heart in the right place.
THE HALF OF IT is streaming now on Netflix.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, May 15th, 8:30 am HK time!
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