Brief synopsis: a highly intelligent high school senior girl living in a small town with her father, makes extra money by writing the homework of other less accomplished students. When one student asks her to write a love letter, she finds herself in an unusual love triangle.
Is it any good?: The Half Of It is a lovely film and a beautiful observation of relationships. The central performances are first-rate and the pitch-perfect. The humour in the film works as a natural byproduct of the premise and a sparkling script. A delightful film.
Spoiler territory: Chinese-American high school senior, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), is a highly intelligent loner living in the small town of Squahamish. She lives with her father Edwin (Collin Chou) who moved to the town to work. To help him make ends meet, Ellie charges other students to write their homework.
As she hands out the papers during music class, Mr Flores (Enrique Murciano) addresses the class even as they pat scant attention, passing mobile messages between one another. As the class stand to sing, Ellie watches Aster (Alexxis Lemire), Mr Flores daughter. Aster is also the trophy girlfriend of popular hunk, Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz).
Out on the playing field, Paul (Daniel Diemer), pauses as he hears Aster’s voice coming from the music room. His coach screams out to him and he starts back running. After the class, Ellie adds her name to the list of students performing in the talent show.
In her English class, Ellie’s prowess with her written work is such that even the teacher, Mrs Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker), allows her to do it, remarking that it is better than reading what the other students might have actually written. Mrs Geselschap tries to persuade Ellie to apply for a college outside of Squahamish. Ellie is reluctant to leave her father.
As she cycles home, Ellie is chased by Paul. He catches up to her and tells her he needs her to write something. Thinking he wants her to write his homework, she reels off her prices. Paul tells her he wants her to rewrite his love letter. To Aster. Ellie tells him it needs to be authentic and come from the heart so she does not want to write it.
Ellie sits with her father. The lights flicker. She asks him if he paid the electric bill. He tells her that he tried but they do not understand his accent. He focuses his attention back on the television, watching the closing scene from Casablanca. Ellie tells him she will call the electric company.
The next day, Ellie calls the electric company and spends most of the day trying to get through to the right department. Whilst walking along the school corridor, still waiting to get through to the electric company, she gets bounced by another student, her belongings ending up strewn all over the floor. As she picks her stuff up, Aster comes and helps her.
A stunned Ellie introduces herself. Aster smiles at her telling her that as she as they have been in the same class for four years, she knew who she was. The girls stand up and Aster hands her back her phone and leaves. Ellie gets through to the electric company. They tell her that her bill is three months overdue and if she does not pay fifty dollars by tomorrow she will be cut off.
Ellie sees Paul. She tells him that the letter will cost him fifty dollars. He agrees. They get to work on his letter. Paul tells Ellie that he loves Aster. She asks him if he has ever spoken to her, he has not. Ellie thinks he is silly. Paul points out to her that she has obviously never been in love. She is more determined to write the letter after that slight. She writes the letter
Paul tells Ellie that he got a reply. Aster’s letter gently points out the plagiarising of Wim Wenders. Paul asks why she cheated on the letter but Ellie assures him it is a good thing. She gets to writing another letter. The letter intrigues Aster enough for her to write back. Paul meets Ellie in the church and gives her the reply letter.
Paul wants to texts her but Ellie says it is too soon. The letters continue back and forth. Aster drops one of the letters in English class, having been called by Trig to go and get something to eat. Ellie and Aster are in the bathroom as two girls in the stalls talk about Aster. They mention how poor Aster’s family is but that she is lucky because Trig’s family is wealthy. Aster leaves the bathroom.
Mrs Geselschap stops Ellie at the end of class and shows her the dropped love letter. She says that she now understands why half of her class are suddenly failing with their essays. Ellie taels her she will be back to business soon as she does not feel that the relationship will go on much longer. The exchange of letters continues.
The girls communicate through art as well, through graffiti on a town wall but never meeting, Aster believing the letters are from Paul. Paul is getting impatient and wants to meet up with Aster. He sends her an emoji-filled text. Ellie makes up something and sends a more erudite text to rescue the situation. Aster agrees to meet Paul.
Ellie tries to coach Paul on what to say during the date but he is confident that he will be fine. He is not, getting tongue-tied and nervous on meeting up with Aster. The next day, Ellie remarks how badly the date went. Paul is determined to push on with his pursuit of Aster. Ellie tells him they have nothing in common.
Some other high schoolers shout abuse at Ellie as they drive by. Paul defends her. Ellie decides that Paul needs to study for his next date with Aster and the two set out a schedule. They spy on Aster to find out her likes and dislikes. Paul is also trying to start his own food business and has invented, he believes, the taco sausage.
As they keep watching Aster, Paul says they need to eat. They go to his home but as it is too chaotic, they end up at Ellie’s house, watching films with her dad. The two hang out together, Paul getting to know Ellie better and her story.
Ellie is struggling with her feelings for the Aster she is writing to in the letters, especially as Aster believes it is Paul writing the letters. Ellie and Paul continue to hang out together. Aster texts Ellie, thinking she is Paul, late at night.
Ellie asks Paul what he likes about Aster. Paul tells her that she likes that she is pretty and smells nice and is nice to everyone. Ellie says what she likes and Paul is embarrassed by his simplistic take on love. Ellie assures him that he puts more effort into love than anyone she has ever seen, except for her father.
Paul tries his taco sausage recipe out on Ellie and her dad. They both love it. The two friends watch the end of a romantic film and Ellie remarks how it is silly for the male lover to be running after the train. Later, when Paul is at work, he hears Ellie singing, practising for the talent show. Paul goes on a second date. It is going as badly as the first one.
Ellie sends Aster a text and saves there date. The next day, Ellie and Paul go shopping for her talent show outfit. He tells her that he kissed Aster. Ellie wants to know how he knew to kiss her. He tells her he just did. They go to the talent show. Trig proves his popularity by performing a rock number. Ellie follows on after him and is having a difficult time until Paul hands her a guitar and tells her to do her own song.
Ellie’s song proves popular and she finds herself slightly popular, getting invited to a senior prom party. She goes to the party and drinks too much. Paul looks after her taking her to his house to sleep off her drunkenness. Aster comes to Paul’s house to see him and sees Ellie in Paul’s bedroom. Ellie tells her she was only there to help him with a project.
Aster ends up hanging out with Ellie and taking her to a secret lagoon she knows about. The two girls bond. Aster asks if she should marry Trig, as that seems to be the sensible thing to do. Ellie does not know. Paul, meanwhile, is cooking with Ellie’s dad. Aster drops Ellie home and goes to see Paul. He tells her he has got a game at the weekend so won’t be able to see her.
Both the girls go to the game and Paul, playing in the notoriously terrible school football team, becomes a hero as he scores a touchdown. After the game, Paul tries to kiss Ellie and Aster sees them. Ellie, who stops Paul, tries to explain to a retreating Aster. Paul realises that Ellie has feelings for Aster. Ellie runs into Trig as she goes home. Trig, never low on confidence, is convinced that she is in love with him.
Ellie is morose. Paul googles what are the signs of gayness. Paul goes to sees Ellie father. He asks Paul if they broke up, worried about her sadness. Paul tells him that he, Edwin, does not see her. He explains, in Mandarin, to a confused Paul, that his wife’s death broke him. He also admits that he does not want Ellie to change.
At church, Trig proposes to Aster in front of the town’s congregation. Ellie, much to everyone’s surprise, protest. Paul stands up and apologises cryptically to Ellie and Aster. Ellie confesses she has been hiding something, her words only making sense to Aster, who realises that she was the author of the letters.
Aster leaves the church, slapping Paul as she leaves. Ellie returns home. Her father tells her she is going to college. The next day, Ellie goes to see Aster. Aster tells her she is going to art school. Ellie apologises. Aster says that perhaps if she was different. Ellie tells her she could never be different. Aster wishes her luck in Iowa. Ellie comes back and kisses her.
Paul sees Ellie off on the train to college. He runs after the train as it pulls off his laughter bringing tears to her eyes. The end.
The Half Of It is a lovely film that manages to be both modern and nostalgic. It is nostalgic in its setting of high school love and angst but manages to be modern with its elements of LBGTQ references and leanings whilst utilising elements of that most popular of love stories, Cyrano De Bergerac.
What is nice about writer/director Alice Wu’s film is she does not force the LBGTQ aspect of the film. Nor is it front and centre and so does not overwhelm proceedings. The film is about love and feelings and the truth behind them. What is most surprising about Wu’s film is that it is only her second film. The Half Of It is a wonderfully accomplished film with great performances from all of the actors, especially the two central performances from Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer. Everyone in the film is perfectly cast and Wu brilliantly separates Lemire’s Aster from the other girls in the school by making her the only brunette.
The film has a good soundtrack and whizzes through its one hundred and four-minute runtime. Wu’s shot selection is good, using different angles and depths to convey moods. There are no unnecessary or wasted shots in the film, with each scene pushing on to the next.
It is Wu’s script that is the real star though with every actor having a very distinct voice even Ellie’s reticent father. The Half Of It is one of the better films I have seen on Netflix this year and is definitely worth a look during this lockdown we find ourselves in. A joy.