(2020) (Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer) (PG-13)
- QUICK TAKE:
- Romantic Dramedy: A book smart senior agrees to write love letters and more for a high school jock to the girl of his dreams, all while having a crush on their classmate herself.
In the railroad town of Squahamish, Ellie Chu (LEAH LEWIS) is a high school senior who lives with her widowed dad, Edwin (COLLIN CHOU), and makes money on the side writing papers for other students. That skill has brought her to the attention of classmate Paul Munksy (DANIEL DIEMER) who plays on the football team when not working in his family's sausage business. He's not good with words, and knowing that Ellie is, he wants to pay her to write a love letter to their classmate, Aster Flores (ALEXXIS LEMIRE). She's the daughter of the local preacher and is dating school jock Trig Carson (WOLFGANG NOVOGRATZ), although not happily.
Needing money to pay the electric bill, Ellie reluctantly agrees to pen the letter, all while secretly longing for Aster herself. But she only lets on about that through her subsequent letters and text messages where she pretends to be Paul who she then tries to teach to be as witty and deep in person as her writing makes him appear to be. As that continues, Ellie finds herself torn about continuing the ruse.
- OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
In 1897 playwright Edmond Rostand delivered the play "Cyrano de Bergerac" and in the intervening years it's been produced countless times on the stage while also being adapted for the big screen from time to time, sometimes in (or at least close to) its original form, while at others it serves as loose inspiration. While others such as 1945's "Love Letters" managed to rack up a number of Oscar nominations, my favorite of the bunch has always been "Roxanne."
That was the Steve Martin comedy from 1987 where he plays a character possessing a nose that would make Pinocchio jealous but also a wit about him that a handsome if bland new firefighter (Rick Rossovich) hopes to use (in written and verbal form) to win over the girl of his dreams (Daryl Hannah). While I haven't seen it in years, I remember it to be a funny and delightful reimagining of the classic tale.
Now, three decades later we have another such adaptation that thankfully has jettisoned the over-sized schnoz in favor of a sexual orientation spin on the classic story. It's "The Half of It," an adorable romantic dramedy that uses "Cyrano's" anonymous writer bit as the jumping-off point for telling its story of high school romance. In it, Leah Lewis plays Ellie Chu, a high school senior who lives in a small railroad town with her widowed father who spends his off-time watching old movies on TV.
Sometimes, the inclusion of that sort of material is a desperate attempt to level up new material by having it in the company of classics such as "Casablanca." That same goes true for throwing title cards up onto the screen displaying old, wise quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde and Sartre where you worry that it's another attempt to hijack quality through association. Thankfully, writer/director Alice Wu (making just her second big-screen flick after a long, 15-year interim) doesn't use any of that as a crutch but instead layers such material onto her tale in winning ways.
After we hear Ellie talking about the gods of old separating a perfect human in half and the non-stop search from that point on for the perfect soul mate to make oneself whole again, we get into the gist of the story. The teen, born in China but mostly raised in the squeamish sounding Squahamish, is smart and thus makes extra cash ghostwriting other students' papers and such to pay her dad's utility bills.
With her reputation preceding her, football jock and sausage king classmate Abe Froman, uh, Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), wants to pay her to write an old-fashioned love letter to the girl of his dreams, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), seemingly oblivious to the fact that she's dating his team's quarterback, Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz).
Ellie wants no part of that, but the electricity is getting turned off tomorrow and Paul's rough draft letter is so cringe-worthy awful that she takes the job. But her secret is that she also has a crush on Aster, albeit one that no one knows about, including that classmate whose father is the local pastor. So, Ellie ends up expressing her feelings through her letters and text messages to Aster -- pretending to be Paul -- and falls deeper in love with her while threatening to help make Aster fall for him.
Maybe the offering simply caught me at the right moment of wanting some ray of sunshine in our current bleak world, but I loved every minute of it. Funny, charming, heartfelt, and delightful, it also touches on some deeper thematic material regarding teens, immigrants, and sexual orientation that nicely add some depth and nuance to the story and its characters.
The performances from the three leads are nothing short of terrific, while Collin Chou adds some nice reserved moments of poignancy that should melt your heart and leave a wistful smile on your face. My favorite film of the year so far, "The Half of It" proves there's still novel life to be found in a century-plus old tale. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.
Reviewed April 29, 2020 / Posted May 1, 2020
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