“The Half of It” swept right by me when it premiered last week, in the rush of new programming that Netflix launches every week. Every Friday brings a new smorgasbord of shows, movies, stand-up specials, documentaries. No wonder we all just give up and watch “Tiger King.”
So another teen romantic comedy didn’t initially grab my attention. But then I saw that it was the new film by writer-director Alice Wu, who, 15 years ago, made a terrific romantic comedy called “Saving Face.” It was an underseen film, pioneering in the ways both Asian-Americans and lesbians are portrayed on screen. But Wu faced such headwinds in Hollywood to get her second film made that she actually left the business for a while, before returning for “The Half of It.”
It’s delightful, a cut about the glut of YA rom-coms on Netflix the way “Say Anything” was a step up from all the other teen romances that filled movie theaters in the 1980s.
The film is basically a smartphone-aided update on “Cyrano de Bergerac” (or Steve Martin’s “Roxanne,” speaking of great ‘80s comedies). Leah Lewis plays Ellie Chu, the only Asian-American at her small-town high school. Wu emphasizes Ellie’s physical and emotional alienation by having her live in a converted train depot outside of town with her widowed father.
At school, she’s just as isolated, interacting with her fellow students when she’s writing term papers for them for cash. Lewis beautifully plays Ellie, showing us the armor she’s built up to avoid being hurt by being the outcast. And then we see that armor crumble a little when she sees Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of the town’s new minister (and band teacher). Aster instantly rockets to the upper echelons on the school’s popular clique, but she also seems genuinely kind in a way that’s out of step with the school’s mean girls.
Ellie keeps her crush to herself, sure she’d never have a chance. But then sweet-natured jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) has a proposition. He also likes Aster, but is tongue-tied, and not particularly articulate when that tongue is untied. Could Ellie write her a letter pretending to be him?
Writing the letter gives Ellie the chance to express her bottled-up feelings, and Aster responds in kind. The letters lead to texts back and forth, and a bond develops between the girls. But Ellie and Paul also have a fun chemistry as they become friends. We know at least one side of this love triangle will have to give, but it’s delightful to watch it play out.
And what’s interesting and a little subversive about “The Half of It” is that, in the end, the Cyrano love triangle isn’t really the point. It’s not about who ends up with who, but Ellie learning to know and accept herself. It’s that focus, and Lewis’ wonderful performance, that gets the movie over some shaky third-act plotting as Wu tries to resolve Ellie’s dilemma. I hope it’s not another 15 years until Wu’s next movie.
Also on streaming: Netflix is also dropping the second season of “Dead to Me,” starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini as two Los Angeles women who become friends despite that fact that . . . well, you have to watch the show for yourself. Also premiering is the new series “The Eddy,” a drama set at a Paris jazz club that’s co-created by Damien Chazelle of “La La Land” fame.
You had me at “twisty toyboy thriller,” Acorn TV press release. “Gold Digger,” which premiered Monday, is a miniseries starring Julia Ormond (“Legends of the Fall”) as a 60-year-old rich woman who starts dating a 30-year-old man (Ben Barnes), much to the chagrin of her adult children. Are they really in love, or is the toyboy in it for the money?
Fans of “Rick & Morty” will want to check out the new Hulu animated comedy “Solar Opposites,” created by some of the same team, which premiered Friday. The show follows a family of aliens who relocate to a suburban neighborhood in Middle America, as part of an early recon mission for a future colonization of Earth.