Midnight at the Magnolia – review (Netflix)

Brief synopsis: a couple of local radio host, who also happen to be long time best friends, get notoriety for their relationship advice on their morning show. A flippant conversation, on-air, about their trepidation when introducing prospective partners to their families has their boss suggesting they should introduce their partners to their families live on air.

A larger corporation is prepared to syndicate them countrywide if they do so. They agree to the task but a spanner is thrown in the works when both are dumped before New Year’s Eve. They decide to fake a relationship between the two of them to fulfil their dream of getting syndicated across the country. 

Is it any good?: Midnight at the Magnolia is a sweet rom-com that works even though it is quite predictable. The two leads, Natalie Hall and Evan Williams are great. Their chemistry is excellent and the script is above average for a Netflix festive film. An enjoyable eighty-seven minutes.

Spoiler territory: Maggie Quinn (Natalie Hall) is smartly dressed, ready for work early in the morning. Jack Russo (Evan Williams) is shocked out of his slumber by his alarm clock. Maggie eats her breakfast and leaves for work, arriving comfortably early for the morning show she hosts with Jack, Windy City Wake-Up. 

Their boss, Deb (Alison Brooks) asks her where Jack is. Maggie tells her he will be there. She is not worried. The show is about to go live. Deb counts Maggie in for the morning introduction, as Maggie speaks to Chicago, Jack rushes in and joins the show. 

It is Boxing Day and Maggie and Jack’s radio banter denotes that the two are longtime friends. They get on to the subject of their prospective partners. Maggie asks Jack if he is bringing his latest girlfriend to meet his parents. Jack says he is not. He asks her if she is bringing Seb (Sean Williams). Maggie replies in the negative. 

After the show, Deb tells them that not only was their talk of introducing their partners to their families a hit, it got them noticed by a bigger network who are thinking of taking them countrywide. Seb comes to meet Maggie for lunch. He tells her that he felt like they were making fun of him and Jack’s girlfriend, their closeness making him feel excluded. 

Jack and Maggie’s fathers’ jointly own the Magnolia restaurant and jazz club. The two go to a family dinner and are warmly greeted by Jack’s father, Martin (Martin Gordin Shore) and Maggie’s dad, Steve (Steve Cumyn). Jack’s mum, Bev (Susan Hamann) comes and joins the party. Maggie’s sister Amanda (Victoria Maria) her husband, Matt (Matthew Stefiuk) and their son Cody (Dane O’Connor). 

Jack and Maggie tell the family the news about their impending syndication, everybody is happy. At the dinner, Martin is reluctant to speak about the bar’s business much to Jack’s surprise. He asks him about it after dinner. He tells him that the bar is not as popular as it once was. 

The next morning, after their show, Deb comes and tells them that the broadcaster wants to take them nationally with a show on New Year’s Eve. They also want them to introduce their prospective partners live on air. Both are initially reluctant but the thought of going national persuades them. Jack thinks that they should do it at the Magnolia to help boost sales for the venue. 

They go and tell their fathers. Having told their fathers, they decide that they need to tell their partners. Maggie tries to get through to Seb, leaving him messages. He calls her back and breaks up with her. There is a knock at her door. It is Jack. His girlfriend broke up with him as well. Worried about the upcoming syndication opportunity, Jack suggests that they pretend to be together. 

After some convincing, Maggie reluctantly agrees. To try and convince Deb, the two decide that they should be caught kissing. As they are kissing, Jack’s parents walk in and see them. After a bit of confusion, Jack’s parents surprise them both, ecstatic that they have got together. They find that all of the family is happy that the two of them are together, having believed that they should have always gotten together. 

Alone in Jack’s apartment, the two recall when he sang a song and how captivated she had been by his performance. The next day, Deb tells them that they have been invited to a cocktail party by the Judd Crawford (Peter Michael Dillon), the boss of the syndication. She also tells them that their new union is going to be live-streamed. 

Jack and Maggie go to the local coffee shop. Maggie sees Seb with another woman and is hurt at the thought that he has replaced her so quickly. Jack takes Maggie sleigh riding to cheer her up. Maggie sees her sister in the bar. Amanda tells her that she can see that Maggie is smitten, having always loved Jack. The New Year’s Eve party sells out in an hour. 

Jack and Maggie go to the cocktail party. Whilst talking to Judd, they are surprised to find out that he is expecting a midnight kiss live on air. After the cocktail party, they go to the bar and reminisce. They arrange a dinner at Maggie’s apartment to commemorate the anniversary of her mother’s death. They talk about broken hearts, with Jack admitting that Bianca Bell (Hannah Gordon) broke his heart in high school. 

Maggie says she had her heart broken once but does not tell him who it was. As they walk home, Maggie tells Jack that she has never had a midnight kiss. Jack says they should practice but the blaring of a car horn dissuades them. 

The next day at the bar, an anxious Steve is waiting for Jack. When he arrives he takes him outside and gives him Maggie’s mother’s ring. Jack is thrown by the gesture and leaves, telling Maggie he is not feeling well. On his way home, Jack runs into Bianca. They go for a drink and a catch-up. 

Bianca tells Jack that Maggie was heartbroken when he did not take her to the prom. She also tells him that she broke up with him because he loved Maggie. Jack denies loving Maggie. He realises that he has forgotten his dinner with Maggie and rushes over to try and make it up to her. Maggie is not happy and admits that she feels he always puts her second. 

Maggie goes to see her dad. She asks him how he knew that her mother was the one. He tells her that she had a fear of spiders but when she heard him falling in the attic, she ran through cobwebs to get to him. Maggie is not sure that Jack would run through cobwebs for her. 

It is New year’s Eve and they are doing their morning show. Maggie is still angry at Jack. Maggie goes out for coffee and bumps into Seb. Jack sees them together in the coffee shop and realises he does not want to lose her. He goes to see his dad for advice. 

At the party, Jack sees Judd and is told that he is thinking of giving them separate shows. Jack, taken aback, asks if Maggie knows about the idea. Judd tells him that she does and seemed open to it. As midnight approaches, Jack tells the live stream and the listeners that they are not getting together with their prospective partners or, as their families and bosses believe, one another. 

Maggie admits that their relationship is a sham and they only got together for the sake of their career. She leaves the stage. Jack tells the live stream that he loves Maggie and does not want his own show. He sings a song that he wrote for her and they get together for real and kiss at midnight. 

A year later, Jack proposes to her with the ring Steve gave him. Maggie accepts. The end. 

Final thoughts: Midnight at the Magnolia is a delightful rom-com written by Carley Smale and directed by Max McGuire. Hall and Williams are perfectly cast as life long best friends who dance around their love for one another. Williams is particularly good as the clueless Jack, oblivious to that fact that his best friend is in love with him. 

All the cast play their parts perfectly well, something that really helps the central pairing seem more believable. The pacing of the film is good and it whizzes through its eighty-seven-minute runtime. 

Being a post-Christmas film, with the plot running up to a New Year’s Eve party, the film is slightly festive, being set in winter, without any mention of Christmas. The script is more amusing through its character interaction rather than any pithy witticisms in the writing but it all flows very naturally. 

Midnight at the Magnolia is a nice film to while away eighty-seven minutes. Sweet. 

The Half Of It – review (Netflix)

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.