8mm Review: Filmmaker Alice Wu Returns with Netflix’s ‘The Half of It’

The Half of It was released by Netflix on May 1st and is about:

“When smart but cash-strapped teen Ellie Chu agrees to write a love letter for a jock, she doesn’t expect to become his friend — or fall for his crush.”

I had only heard of the film maybe a week or two before it’s release – which surprised me since I am a big fan of writer/director Alice Wu‘s first film, ‘Saving Face,‘ that came out in 2005. At an after screening party in San Francisco, I met Alice Wu and had her sign a movie poster (it says “John, write!” – in reference to my desire to write a film based on a semi-biographical idea I had) that is still hanging in my home today:

I had read a long time ago that Wu was going to be working on an adpatation of a book, ‘Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China’, to film, I was excited to see her next film. But ultimately, it never was made.

A more detailed synopsis of the film by Rolling Stone of ‘The Half of It’:

“Picture a modernized, queer-teen version of Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the title character is a closeted Chinese-American girl who’s hired by a tongue-tied jock to write love letters to win the heart and mind the high-school queen they both secretly love. That’s the starting point for Alice Wu’s sweetly subversive The Half of It, a romcom (streaming on Netflix starting May 1st) that undercuts Hollywood formula at every turn.

Instead of Paris, where Cyrano is set, this revisionist take on the classic transpires in bluntly un-romantic Squahamish, a dead-end town in Washington state where conformity is king. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a social outcast and dutiful daughter who lives with her widower father (Collin Chou), an engineer with a PhD and an immigrant now reduced to the job of local station master. To help improve his halting English, he watches classic movies on TV. Ellie’s adored mom believed that every song, movie and story had “a best part.” To Dad, the best part of his favorite movie Casablanca is the ending which points to the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That seems out of reach for Ellie, who rides her bike to school while students shout racial slurs and whose life in Squahamish is her own personal version of Sartre’s No Exit. Literary and cinematic allusions are this young woman’s specialty; it’s not every YA comedy that begins with an animated prologue about Plato’s origins of love.”

Overall, I enjoyed this “young adult” romantic comedy, but not as much as Saving Face. The setup for a high school love triangle is quite familiar, but this film definitely has quite a few twists and turns. The film kind of reminds me of ‘Juno,’ another quirky young adult romantic high school comedy in terms of genre.

The performance by Leah Lewis, who plays Ellie, is fantastic. Actors Daniel Diemer playing Paul and Alexxis Lemire playing Aster Flores are good as well – but it is Lewis that really carries the film and is in every scene. Collin Chou, who plays Ellie’s windowed father, does a decent job – but I felt his character wasn’t really developed that well.

My biggest disappointment was the climactic scene where a lot of loose ends get very quickly tied up coupled with some plot elements that also didn’t quite make sense to me. But I agree with the overall conclusions to the ending of the film – which felt realistic rather than a traditional “Hollywood” ending.

Overall, I recommend the film and I hope is “successful” internally to Netflix so that it can fund whatever other project Wu might have lined up. Wu has a unique vision and I enjoy the stories she has told.

If you want to learn more about Alice Wu and The Half Of It, checkout this excellent ‘They Call Us Bruce’ podcast interview by Jeff Yang and Phil Yu (‘Angry Asian Man’) 

It was really great to learn some of Wu’s thinking about the film as well as her overall journey since Saving Face – a lot that I could personally relate to. Since Wu is based in the San Francisco Bay Area like myself, I’m hoping to see her at some future event when the Shelter In Place quarantine order is over.

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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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