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'The Half of It' review: Endearing teen romance

Daniel Diemer as Paul Munsky and Leah Lewis

Daniel Diemer as Paul Munsky and Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu in Netflix's "The Half of It." Credit: Netflix/KC Bailey

PLOT An inarticulate jock and a brainy high-school girl fall in love with the school beauty.

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix

RATED PG-13 (mature themes)

CAST Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire

LENGTH 1:45

BOTTOM LINE An endearing teen romance that handles sexual orientation with a light touch.

Three small-town high-schoolers – one straight, one gay, one possibly up for grabs – make for a post-millennial love triangle in Alice Wu’s deft, delicate teen film, “The Half of It.” At heart it’s a version of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the classic story about an inarticulate lover who hires a writer to help sweet-talk an object of desire, updated with emojis and sexual question marks.

Our heroine is Ellie Chu (a terrific Leah Lewis), a brainy Asian-American living with her underemployed father (Collin Chou) in Squahamish (which looks and sounds like the rural Pacific Northwest). Known as an essayist for hire, Ellie agrees to pen a love letter to the beautiful Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) on behalf of tongue-tied jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer). What Paul doesn’t know is that Ellie has her own secret feelings for Aster.

“The Half of It," which won the top award at this year's (virtual) Tribeca Film Festival, marks an overdue return for Wu, an openly gay filmmaker who all but disappeared after 2005’s “Saving Face.” Based on a youthful triangle of her own, “The Half of It” rings true in nearly every scene. We instantly grasp that Ellie’s antisocial personality hides a lonely heart, just as we slowly realize Paul is smarter and deeper than he appears. Aster, like so many cinematic beauties, remains mostly one-dimensional, but Wu tries to do right by her as well. And because these kids are barely formed, we’re willing to believe a romance could blossom any which way.

Wu loses her footing near the film’s end, when a strain of church-based homophobia suddenly raises its head. Just as suddenly, it’s quashed by a big speech on tolerance. The movie was working just fine without the messaging.

Still, Wu loves her characters so much that, in the end, so do we. To quote one of Paul’s unexpected pearls of wisdom: “Isn’t that what love is? How much effort you put into loving someone?”

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