It’s about ten minutes into The Half of It that you realize Leah Lewis is a star. After a montage of mundane high school interactions with a cynical narration about love, we follow Lewis as Ellie Chu as she begins her day writing papers for money on behalf of the students at her high school. Without saying a word, Lewis makes you feel Ellie’s pain, trapped in a town that doesn’t understand her and in fact actively resents her presence (bullies shouting “chugga Chu-Chu” at her from their pickup truck as she bikes alone, the students whose papers she writes barely looking at her as she hands them out.) But the scene that cements Lewis as a star on the rise is when Ellie interacts with her father. In just a few words, most of them in Mandarin, we see the weight of the world on Ellie’s shoulders as she handles adult problems like a late electricity bill. Her love for him shines through, but Lewis lets us feel the frustration and sadness below the surface.
At first it seems heavy for what is marketed as a modern retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, but then Ellie finally gets a break. She runs through the halls at her school, still on hold with the power company, when she slams into Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the girl of her dreams. Ellie can’t do anything but stare as Aster helps her pick up her things, complimenting her on her taste in books and flashing her a smile. It’s a meet-cute like so many in rom-coms, but Lewis’ barely repressed longing makes it feel so much deeper than that. And in that moment, you are glued to the screen, rooting for Ellie and praying her heart isn’t broken. It’s an unfamiliar feeling for a Netflix teen love story.
But then again, Alice Wu never promised us a simple love story where the prince finds the princess and everyone lives happily ever after. Ellie may be looking for her other half in Aster, but she finds it in Paul Munsky (a wonderful Daniel Diemer in a breakthrough performance), an adorably clueless jock who, like Ellie, is transfixed by Aster. When he enlists Ellie’s services to write a letter to Aster expressing his love (not trusting his admittedly poor way with words to win her over), The Half of It finds its heart in the slow development of their friendship. Lewis and Diemer’s chemistry shines from their first full scene together as Paul shyly presents his best work and Ellie realizes she has her work cut out for her (highlight: “Even if you were ugly, I’d want to know you. Cuz your smart and nice too. It’s hard to find all those things in one girl. But even if you were only two of those things, I’d be into it.”) You never doubt Paul’s sincerity, and Ellie taking him under her wing despite her own feelings makes for a funny and sweet dynamic. As their relationship grows from allies to friends and they share more about themselves with each other, you start to hope that maybe both of them have found the soul connection they’re searching for.
The Half of It isn’t just a romantic film about two souls desperate to find each other. It’s about discovering yourself and being honest with the people you love. It’s about that desire to be fully seen by another person, romantically or otherwise. Ellie, Paul, and Aster all feel unseen by the people in their lives for varying reasons, but they keep searching for connection no matter how futile it may feel in Squahamish. By the time the credits roll, you may find yourself smiling through tears as I did, having fallen in love with these characters. It’s a beautiful story, and one that deserves credit for its representation of perspectives that aren’t often seen in film. Count me among the many who will eagerly await a sequel to The Half of It – and whatever comes next from Leah Lewis.
The Half of It is available to watch now on Netflix.