I distinctly remember the confusion and befuddlement when, in 2012, I listed Perks of Being a Wallflower as my #1 movie of the year. Yes, that put it ahead of Argo, Skyfall, The Master and The Dark Knight Rises. I heard from several people who were surprised to see me list a film that was so unheralded and, most important, seemingly unimportant as my favorite of the whole year. Well, my argument then and now would be: if a film is done right, it can always be important somehow. There was just something about that movie that struck the biggest chord with me and I just couldn’t shake it. That’s what I love so much about movies…you never know when a movie will hit you at a time and place in your life and find a way to resonate.
If you were surprised by how much I loved Perks of Being a Wallflower, brace yourselves, because I just saw the best movie so far of 2020 and it’s one you never knew even existed.
The Half of It is the second feature film from writer/director Alice Wu. It tells the story of Ellie, a quiet, introverted Chinese-American high school senior in a small Washington town. It’s as standard a setup as you can imagine, as Ellie is either teased or ignored by her classmates, except when it comes to them needing a paper written, for which they readily go to her, at $20 a pop. We’ve seen this story a million times, the quiet and shy introvert with no friends who finds a way to get everyone to notice her and realize how awesome and cool she really is, just in time to transform into a beautiful swan and live happily ever after.
Well, The Half of It is everything you expect in none of the standard ways to get there. Wu amazingly finds a way to make a movie that feels so familiar in such a fresh, heart-filled and breezy way. It all starts with the absolute perfect casting of Leah Lewis as Ellie. Lewis is making her motion picture debut in The Half of It and she’s an absolute revelation. A character with the spunk of Juno and the self-effacing charm of Lloyd Dobler, Ellie adds on a layer of defensiveness and sarcastic gumption that make you love her from the first moment. When she is approached by awkward, goofy football jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) to write a love letter for him to give to his crush, Ellie at first resists, but then realizes she’s got a big fish on the line, so she may as well make the most of it. It also helps that Paul’s crush is Aster Flores (Alexis Lemirre), the same girl that she herself has her own crush on. Ellie realizes this will probably be her only chance to tell Aster how she really feels, even if she doesn’t know it.
So yes, not only is it every classic high school trope, but now it’s got an even more familiar Cyrano DeBergerac spin to it. How on earth can such a movie feel fresh and different? Because Wu has written and directed a film that is perfect in spite of its familiarity. The Half of It is a film that John Hughes would have written if he were still here. What made Hughes’s movies so poignant back in the ‘80s wasn’t their originality or groundbreaking plots, it was their heart and their characters who you truly loved spending two hours with. Wu has re-imagined the Hughes magic and made it her own. Every character in this film starts out in their predetermined box (the brain, the jock, the pretty girl) but Wu gives each one the chance to shape themselves into their own distinct human being. In addition to Lewis’s standout performance, Diemer and Lemirre are just as appealing as characters you think you know on the surface but find ways to surprise and delight you. Greta Zozula’s gorgeous cinematography adds the perfect atmosphere to this film that challenges emotion and comes this close to breaking your heart.
I hate to call The Half of It a rom-com. While it is a love story, it is most definitely not romantic (at least not in the generic way). And while it is absolutely hysterical, I would never consider it an outright comedy. There is a spirit to this movie that transcends genre. Forget that this is a rom com and forget that it’s a high school movie. This is a movie about friendship, first love, self-acceptance, individuality and finding your own path. It’s a queer movie with a universal philosophy. Yes, I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies, it’s true. I am a product of the John Hughes era, so these movies are in my DNA. And just as I responded to Love, Simon, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Juno and Booksmart, so I responded to The Half of It. This movie deserves to be in the company of those other smart, sassy, tender and endlessly appealing films. It feels like the softest, warmest blanket on a cool night—its familiarity makes you vulnerable to all of its unique charm and imagination, so bask in it.