Netflix / KC Bailey
By Crystal Bell
Director Alice Wu knows the power of a deadline. If her years as a software engineer for Microsoft taught her anything, it’s that true efficiency is achieved through self-imposed stress (and better time management skills, but that’s besides the point). In late 2016, she applied that knowledge to a script she had been mulling over for months. The filmmaker cut a check for $1,000, sent it to a trusted friend, and made them promise: If she didn’t finish the draft in five weeks, the money would be donated to the National Rifle Association. The guilt, coupled with constant pressure from her close circle of progressive friends, was just the motivation she needed to finish it.
So in a weird way, Wu has the NRA to thank for what would eventually become The Half of It.
The charm of the Netflix film is that it focuses on what most high school movies don’t: the bottled-up resentment towards family, friends, and circumstances brought on by the idea that you need to have your whole life figured out by graduation. Ellie Chu is a sharp, bookish senior who’s floated through high school without making any lasting friendships. She hates attention, and her only real companion is her jaded English teacher. But Ellie is content to exist on the periphery, making cash where she can by writing her classmates’ essays and helping her Chinese immigrant, single father adapt to life in smalltown America. She harbors a secret crush on Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the school’s atypical “It” girl. She’s smart, funny, well-read, and beautiful. So it’s no surprise when the adorably awkward Paul (Daniel Diemer), a jock with a golden heart and an adventurous palate, also catches feelings for her — and he hires Ellie to help him woo his dream girl through a series of love letters and texts.
Yes, it’s a modern riff on the classic Cyrano tale, a Victorian-era French play in which an uncomely poet woos his dream girl with the help of a handsome man, but The Half of It isn’t a typical young-adult romance. “It’s a little bit more melancholy,” Wu tells MTV News. “It’s set during that period in high school where feelings are very raw, and things are awkward and funny, but there’s also just this deep sense of loneliness that I think pervades that time.”
It’s a familiar theme for Wu, whose strength as a storyteller is her tender, humanist approach. She released her first — and only other — film, Saving Face, nearly 16 years ago. Written for her mother, the multilingual rom-com is loosely inspired by her own coming out as a lesbian to her traditional Chinese family. “I was trying to find a way for my mind to understand,” she says. “She knew I was gay, but it was not a comfortable topic for her.” Wu’s fictional proxy, Wil (Michelle Krusciec), is a young, witty Asian-American surgical resident who’s done everything to make her widowed mother (Joan Chen) proud except for the one thing that really matters: finding a suitable Chinese man to marry. But as much as Saving Face is a love story between pragmatic Wil and con