Take the shy nerd meets sweet jock dynamic of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, combine it with the sexual self-discovery of Alex Strangelove and the Cyrano-inspired plotting of Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, add just a dash of the economic anxiety of The Perfect Date, and you might end up with something kinda sorta exactly like The Half of It.
For the latest entry in Netflix’s original teen rom com canon, that familiarity is a good thing and a bad thing. The Half of It delivers on the charms we’ve come to expect from these films — the mostly unknown but instantly lovable leads, the warm and fuzzy chemistry between them, the bizarre fixation on handwritten notes by modern-day teenagers.
But it doesn’t quite manage to transcend that formula, and ultimately lands as another perfectly fine addition to the streaming catalog, rather than a standout in its own right.
The film starts strong. Ellie Chu feels like a genuinely different kind of romantic comedy heroine, and not just because her bookishness, her queerness, and her Chinese-Americanness set her apart in her small, religious, mostly white hometown. Writer-director Alice Wu and actor Leah Lewis have a keen understanding of Ellie’s isolation: She’s a character so used to being sidelined that it barely even occurs to her anymore to mind.
Ellie is our protagonist, however, so she begins to take a more active role in her own life when she meets her polar opposite. Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) is a football player so guileless that when he tells people to taste his taco sausage, he’s talking about…an actual taco sausage. He hires Ellie to pen love letters on his behalf to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), a popular classmate he barely knows but is convinced he’s in love with — not realizing Ellie is in the exact same boat when it comes to Aster.
Ellie is a different kind of heroine, and not just because her bookishness, her queerness, and her Chinese-Americanness set her apart.
The Half of It makes it clear from the start that Ellie, not Paul, is Aster’s true match. Their courtship consists of moments that might seem cloying if they weren’t so appropriately teenage, like texting ’til the wee hours of the night, trading favorite quotations and name-checking favorite authors, sharing deep thoughts on the perils of popularity, and at one point even engaging in a socially distanced art project together. And sparks fly on the occasions they meet in person; there’s a scene late in the film that feels ripped out of every romantic’s daydreams.
But it’s Ellie and Paul’s friendship that serves as the emotional backbone for The Half of It. Watching them bond feels like watching an overeager puppy slowly win over a skittish kitten — the fact that they’re so mismatched only makes it cuter when they finally warm up to one another. In Paul, Ellie finds not just a co-conspirator but a rebuttal to the idea, frequently referenced throughout the movie, that hell is other people. Turns out people can trap you, yes, but they can also help set you free.
Though not without a bit of stumbling, at least in this movie. The Half of It spends its first half tossing balls in the air — the Ellie-Paul friendship, the Ellie-Aster-Paul love triangle, Ellie’s college plans, Ellie’s relationship with her dad, Aster’s relationship with her boyfriend, the town’s relationship to religion — and then its final third tripping over its own feet trying to catch them all.
Plot points pop up seemingly out of the blue and are resolved just as suddenly, while others are left to wrap up offscreen. The tone takes one jarring shift, and then another, before landing back where it started. A climactic confrontation reaches for broad comedy and twisty drama, and winds up feeling lifted out of an entirely different movie.
These flaws aren’t fatal, because the movie has banked enough goodwill by this point to see it through some rough patches. But they do leave their mark, turning what looked like the next great coming-of-age classic into a pretty good distraction. Even as the story winds back toward an ending that feels just right for Ellie, there’s a sense that, like an honor roll kid who just can’t seem to get her college plans together, The Half of It is falling short of its potential.
The Half of It is streaming now on Netflix.
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