Review: ‘The Half of It,’ starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer and Alexxis Lemire

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in “The Half of It” (Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix)

“The Half of It”

Directed by Alice Wu

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional small town of Squahamish, Washington, the romantic comedy “The Half of It” tells the “Cyrano de Bergerac”-inspired story of a love triangle between three middle-class teenagers—one Asian female, one white male and one Latina female—who are in their last year of high school.

Culture Clash: The Asian girl and the white guy are both romantically interested in the Latina girl, but because they all live in a religious and conservative community, the Asian girl is a closeted lesbian.

Culture Audience: “The Half of It” will appeal mostly to people who like well-written romantic comedies that follow familiar tropes, but have characters and dialogue that usually aren’t seen very often in movies of this genre.

Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire in “The Half of It” (Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix)

On the surface, the romantic comedy “The Half of It” might seem to be a lesbian twist on “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the 1897 play about a man (the title character) who helps another man write love letters to a woman while secretly pining for the woman himself. However, “The Half of It” (which has a girl in the Cyrano de Bergerac role) is less about who gets the girl in the end and more about what the main characters find out about themselves when it comes to pursuing love.

“The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu, is her first film since her 2004 debut feature film “Saving Face.” Loosely based on Wu’s own experiences, “The Half of It” was worth the long wait for Wu to make her second feature film. The 2020 Tribeca Film Festival jury must have also felt the same way, since “The Half of It” won the top prize (Best U.S. Narrative Feature) at the festival.

Most romantic comedies about teenagers are either one of two extremes: overly sweet or very raunchy. “The Half of It” is neither, although there are some melodramatic moments in the film that veer into some well-worn territory that every romantic comedy seems to have when secret feelings are revealed. Even with these borderline cliché scenes, the rest of the movie is so charming that even the grouchiest cynics might find something to like about the film.

The movie’s central character, Ellie Chu (played by Leah Lewis), would count herself as one of those grouchy cynics in the beginning of the story. The opening scene has Ellie in voiceover mentioning the Greek mythology of soul mates being conjoined in twos and then being split apart, and there is a constant search for people to find their “other half.”

Ellie—who’s a Chinese American student in her last year at high school—makes this wry comment about this “other half” mythology: “Of course, the ancient Greeks never went to high school, or they’d realize that we don’t need the gods to mess things up for us.”

She adds, “If you ask me, people spend far too much time looking for someone to complete them. How many people find perfect love—or if they do, make it last? More evidence of Camus’ theory that life is irrational and meaningless.”

It’s clear at this point that Ellie has above-average intelligence, compared to other people in her age group. She’s smart and funny—but a misfit at her school and in her community. She lives in the small, conservative fictional town of Squahamish, Washington, where the population is predominantly white and Christian—and Ellie is Asian and an atheist.

She doesn’t really have any close friends, and she sometimes gets racist taunts from other students who mock Ellie for her last name. Some of her fellow students also use her, by paying her to do their homework for them. Although she’s an academic whiz, Ellie also has a very artistic side to her: She sings, plays guitar and piano, and writes her own songs, but she’s too shy to sing her songs in public. Ellie plays keyboards in the school’s music group, which requires that all of the group’s class seniors participate in a talent show to spotlight their individual talent. It’s a spotlight that Ellie is dreading.

Ellie has a part-time job working at a booth at a train station. She spends most of her free time alone or with her widower father, Edwin Chu (played by Collin Chou), a Chinese immigrant who has a Ph. D. in engineering, but he has trouble finding work in the United States because he doesn’t speak English very well. It’s also clear during the course of the movie that Edwin is depressed over the death of his wife. The movie doesn’t mention how she died, but her passing has also deeply affected Ellie, who hides her pain with a mask of sarcastic wit.

Because of Edwin’s inability to find steady work, Ellie and her father are struggling financially. It’s one of the reasons why she plans to attend college close to home, instead of Grinnell College, a private liberal-arts school in Grinnell, Iowa, that Ellie’s English teacher Mrs. Geselschap (played by Becky Ann Baker) has been encouraging Ellie to attend. Mrs. Geselschap is a Grinnell alum, and she wants to write a recommendation letter for Ellie to attend Grinell, but Ellie declines the offer because Ellie has no plans to apply to that college.

One day, while Ellie is riding her bike, one of the school’s football players named Paul Munsky (played by Daniel Diemer) accidentally knocks her down. After a profuse apology, Paul introduces himself and asks Ellie to write a love note to Aster Flores (played by Alexxis Lemire), a pretty, popular and smart classmate whom Paul wants to be his girlfriend. Paul, who is a nice person but definitely not articulate, offers to pay $50 to Ellie for the task.

Unbeknownst to Paul, Ellie has a secret crush on Aster too. Ellie immediately refuses to write the note for Paul because—unlike doing homework for other students—Ellie thinks that writing a love note for someone else is too personal. Ellie quips to Paul when she turns down his request: “Get a thesaurus. Use spell check. Good luck, Romeo.”

But when Ellie and her father’s financial problems reach a point where their house’s electrical power is going to be shut off—and wouldn’t you know, the power company needs a minimum of $50 to not shut off the power—Ellie reluctantly agrees to write one letter for Paul. He’s shy about approaching Aster because she’s already dating Trig Carson (played by Wolfgang Novogratz), a handsome but very conceited classmate who’s also very popular at school. Trig is the kind of guy that many people (including Trig) expect Aster to marry someday.

Paul is also intimidated by the fact that Aster is the daughter of Deacon Flores (played by Enrique Murciano), who’s a well-respected and powerful leader in the community. Paul comes from a large, working-class family (that often bickers with each other), so he feels insecure that Aster and her family might think that Paul isn’t good enough for her. He’s also an aspiring chef, which isn’t the image that most people have of a football player. And so, some of the movie is about Paul trying to figure out how much he wants pursue that culinary dream and what becoming a chef will mean for his identity and other people’s expectations.

Aster is the type of person who’s nice to everyone, but her people-pleasing ways have come with a cost, since she’s often afraid of expressing what she really wants. Aster works as a waitress at a local diner, but she dreams of being a professional artist who paints, when her family’s expectation is that she should get married young and start a family. Aster and her family moved to Squahamish from Sacramento, California, so she’s still adjusting to living in a small town.

Meanwhile, Ellie has her own issues with trying to fit in with the community. She was born in China and immigrated with her parents to the United States when she was 5 years old, but she often lies about her background, by telling people that she was born and raised in Squahamish. And although she’s an atheist, she plays organ at the church where Aster’s father is the deacon. It’s implied in the movie that Ellie only spends time at the church to try to get close to Aster.

One of the reasons why Ellie is so attracted to Aster is they both share a love for the same type of literature. The two girls have a “meet cute” moment, when Aster accidentally bumps into Ellie at school and notices that Ellie is reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day,” which is also one of Aster’s favorite novels. It sparks the idea for Ellie to have Paul pretend that he also has a similar taste in books, even though in reality Paul has very little interest in reading.

What started out as one love note turns into a series of letters and text messages that Ellie concocts for Paul to woo Aster. There’s also a sequence where Ellie (pretending to be Paul) and Aster exchange messages by writing on a neighborhood wall—and somehow, they don’t catch each other in the act. Even when their graffiti is painted over, that doesn’t deter them from continuing to write messages on the wall.  (It also gives Aster a chance to show some of her artistic painting skills.) Their graffiti messaging ends when an adult at a nearby business catches one of the girls in the act and scares her away.

Ellie recommends that Paul take things slow and approach Aster as an admiring friend. Aster starts to be won over by the charismatic correspondence that she thinks Paul is writing to her.  But then, the moment comes when Paul wants to ask Aster out on a date, and the reality sinks in to Ellie that Paul and Aster could actually become romantically involved in real life.

If you know the story of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” then you can probably predict how “The Half of It” is going to end, but there are a few refreshing twists to the movie that aren’t very predictable. Lewis carries the film with an authenticity that makes her the clear standout in the cast. The other actors in the movie do a very good job too, but the Ellie character is the voice (and many people would also say the heart and soul) of the story.

What makes the “The Half of It” better than the average teen movie is that even though it’s a movie about teenagers, the movie isn’t just for teenagers, because it expresses many of the ageless emotions that people have about relationships. There’s plenty of cross-generational appeal in the movie’s soundtrack too, which ranges from Sharon Van Etten’s 2019 song “Seventeen” to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1986 tune “The Carny” to ’70s nostalgia hits, such as Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Can Read My Mind.”

Simply put: “The Half of It” is a much-needed, witty boost to the genre of romantic comedies, which have been struggling for years with mediocre and uninspired stories. And hopefully, it won’t take another 16 years for Wu’s next movie to be made.

Netflix premiered “The Half of It” on May 1, 2020.

2020 Tribeca Film Festival: jury winners announced

April 29, 2020

Tribeca Film Festival - white logo

The following is a press release from the Tribeca Film Festival:

 The Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T, announced the winners for the 2020 juried competition, awarding top honors from this year’s program. Tribeca has continued its commitment to celebrating storytellers while the 19th edition, previously set to take place April 15-26, 2020 in New York City, is being rescheduled.

The Half of It was honored with The Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature; The Hater for Best International Narrative Feature; and Socks On Fire for Best Documentary Feature. Shorts awards went to No More Wings for Best Narrative Short; My Father The Mover for Best Documentary Short; Friends for Best Animated Short and Cru-Raw for the Student Visionary Award. The Nora Ephron Award went to director Ruthy Pribar for her feature Asia. The award was created seven years ago to honor excellence in storytelling by a female writer or director who embodies the spirit and boldness of the late filmmaker. The full list of films and filmmakers honored are highlighted below.

“We are fortunate that technology allowed for our jury to come together this year to honor our filmmakers,” said Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “Despite not being able to be together physically, we were still able to support our artists, which has always been at the heart of the Festival.”                                                                                    

“While we are not yet able to celebrate these incredible films at their premieres, we are so proud to celebrate them in partnership with our generous jurors through our 2020 Tribeca awards,” said Festival Director Cara Cusumano. “The jury chose to recognize a daring, innovative, entertaining, diverse group of films and filmmakers, and the Festival is pleased to honor all of them with our first ever virtual awards ceremony.”

 Tribeca’s Art Awards, in partnership with CHANEL, honor winners in select categories with original pieces from ten world-class artists, a tradition since the Festival’s beginning. This year’s selections were curated by notable gallerist Vito Schnabel.

 As announced in early April, select programming from the 2020 edition was made available online for the public, industry, and press. This included: Immersive programming/Cinema360, the N.O.W. Creators Market, Tribeca X, Extranet Industry Resource Hub. Additional online programming will be announced in the coming weeks including Tribeca Talks @ Home, which debuted last week with Cinema360 discussions and will continue on May 3rd featuring the creators of selections from the 2020 program. More information can be found here. Projects included are: Bad Education (HBO), Inheritance (DirecTV/Vertical), I Promise (Quibi), Normal People (Hulu), Not Going QuietlyThe Great (Hulu), The Half of It (Netflix).

 Winners of the juried awards, presented by AT&T; Art Awards in partnership with CHANEL; Tribeca X, sponsored by PwC; and the jury participants are as follows:

U.S. NARRATIVE COMPETITION CATEGORIES:

The jury comprised of Cherien DabisTerry Kinney and Lucas Hedges awarded the following:

Daniel Diemer and Leah Lewis in “The Half of It” (Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix)

Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature – The Half of It, directed by Alice Wu.

  • Jury Comment: “The film is so charming, it’s so energetic, it’s so fun, it’s so well-paced, it’s directed with such a sure hand, it’s a really confident film and the characters are really well drawn and the actors were fantastic.”
  • Art Award: Julian Schnabel‘s Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, 2007. Oil on map.

Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Assol Abdullina, Materna.

  • Jury Comment: “Assol just has so much compelling energy; her emotions ran so deep…we cared about her dilemma.”
Sasha Knight and Steve Zahn in “Cowboys”

Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Steve Zahn, Cowboys.

  • Jury Comment: “Steve showed great range in playing this character.”
Lindsay Burdge and Jade Eshete in “Materna” (Photo by Greta Zozula)

Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Materna, Greta Zozula, Chananun Chotrungroj, Kelly Jeffrey, Cinematographers.

  • Jury Comment: “The visuals were striking and played with color, light and dark, in a very interesting way.”
  • Special Jury Mention for Cinematography: My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To.
Steve Zahn and Sasha Knight in “Cowboys”

Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Cowboys, Anna Kerrigan, Screenwriter.

  • Jury Comment: “A beautiful portrait of a father and his transgendered son.”

INTERNATIONAL NARRATIVE COMPETITION CATEGORIES:

The jury comprised of Sabine HoffmanJudith GodrècheDanny BoyleWilliam Hurt, and Demián Bichir awarded the following:

Maciej Musiałowski and Agata Kulesza in “The Hater” (Photo by Jaroslaw Sosinski)

Best International Narrative Feature – The Hater (Poland), directed by Jan Komasa.

  • Jury Comment: “Incredibly relevant for today; we were really impressed by the way it portrayed a character that is not immediately empathetic but really got us into the journey and the story.”
  • Art Award: Helen Marden‘s January Golden Rock, 2020. Watercolor on paper.
  • Special Jury Mention: Ainu Mosir
“Kokoloko”

Best Actor in an International Narrative Feature Film – Noe Hernandez, Kokoloko (Mexico).

  • Jury Comment: “For his raw and brave performance, taking a giant leap of faith, hand-to-hand with his director.”
Shira Haas and Alena Yiv in “Asia” (Photo by Daniella Nowitz)

Best Actress in an International Narrative Feature Film – Shira Haas, Asia (Israel).

  • Jury Comment: “Her face is a never-ending landscape in which even the tiniest expression is heartbreaking; she’s an incredibly honest and present actress who brings depth to everything she does.”
Alena Yiv in “Asia” (Photo by Daniella Nowitz)

Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film – Asia (Israel)Daniella Nowitz, Cinematographer.

  • Jury Comments: “We were impressed with how the cinematography was supporting the emotionality of the story and was allowing us to really deeply feel with the characters.”

“Very simply and beautifully done.”

Ashish Vidyarthi and Suhasini Maniratnam in “Tryst With Destiny”

Best Screenplay in an International Narrative Feature Film – Tryst With Destiny (India, France), Prashant Nair, Screenwriter.

  • Jury Comments: “How cleverly conceived and executed this script was!” “Beautifully made film.”

 

DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION CATEGORIES:

The jury comprised of Yance FordRegina K. ScullyRyan Fleck, Chris Pine, and Peter Deming awarded the following:

 

Bo McGuire in “Socks on Fire” (Photo by Matt Clegg)

Best Documentary Feature – Socks on Fire, Bo McGuire, Director.

  • Jury Comment:  “The film used new techniques woven into documentary filmmaking and narrative storytelling.”
  • Art Award: Sterling Ruby‘s DRFTRS, 2020. Collage, paint and glue on paper.
  • Special Jury Mention: Wonderboy
Eduardo San Juan Breña in “499” (Photo by Alejandro Mejía/AMC)

Best Cinematography in a Documentary Film – 499, Alejandro Mejia, Cinematographer.  

  • Jury Comment: “The filmmakers did an incredible job of weaving this fictional story into what’s happening today with the disappeared and to marry such grand visions that cinema can only do.”

 

‘Father Soldier Son” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Best Editing in a Documentary Film – Father Soldier Son, Amy Foote, Editor.

  • Jury Comment: “Such a well-crafted film from start to finish; a story that stays with you.”

BEST NEW NARRATIVE DIRECTOR COMPETITION:

The jury comprised of Lukas Haas, Juno Temple, Nat Wolff, Grace Van Patten, and James Ponsoldt awarded the following:

Jorge Garcia in “Nobody Knows I’m Here”

Best New Narrative Director – Nobody Knows I’m Here, Gaspar Antillo, Director.

  • Jury Comment: “A film that felt vital and alive, and every time we thought we knew who the protagonist was or what the world was it evolved and revealed more of itself to us.”
  • Art Award: Rita Ackermann‘s The Working Woman 3, 2018. Oil, crayon and graphite on paper.

BEST NEW DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR COMPETITION:

The jury comprised of Erin Lee CarrStacey ReissJosh HutchersonJoel McHale, and Gretchen Mol awarded the following:

“Jacinta”

Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award – Jacinta, Jessica Earnshaw, Director.

  • Jury Comments: “Incredibly engaging filmmaking,” “very moving, beautifully done.”
  • Art Award: Gus Van Sant‘s Achelous and Hercules, 2016. Enamel on paper.
  • Special Jury mention: The Last Out

THE NORA EPHRON AWARD:

The jury comprised of Gina RodriguezAparna NancherlaAnna BaryshnikovRegina Hall, and Lizzy Caplan awarded:

Alena Yiv and Shira Haas in “Asia” (Photo by Daniella Nowitz)

The Nora Ephron Award – Asia, Director, Ruthy Pribar.

  • Jury Comment: “From the writing, to the directing, to the camera moves, to the direction for the acting, to the way Ms. Pribar told a story through non-speaking was just outstanding.”
  • Art Award: Pat Steir‘s Untitled, 2008. Oil, pencil, ink, and acrylic on paper.
  • Special Jury Mention: My Wonderful Wanda

 

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