There are certain stories that are so classic that they can be changed into many different forms. Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac has inspired numerous films in the past 123 years. That includes at least 10 straight-up adaptations, as well as movies like Roxanne and Megamind, which used the framework of the story to tell their own unique tales.
The latest to give its own twist to the Cyrano story is Netflix’s The Half of It. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a brainy and shy high school senior who makes money on the side by writing papers for her fellow students. When her classmate Paul (Daniel Diemer) asks for help in composing letters to his crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie is put in the unfortunate position of writing love notes to a girl for whom she also has feelings.
Writer/director Alice Wu goes for the gusto in changing up the Cyrano story. She not only sets the story in modern times and gender-switches the protagonist, but she also has Ellie be gay and the only Chinese student at her small-town high school, adding multiple difficult layers for her to navigate.
The pleasant surprise is that for a film set in high school, it deals in a relatively high degree of intelligence. Wu never downplays Ellie’s intellect, having her reference philosopher Albert Camus, author Kazuo Ishiguro, and classic movies in her writings. But she balances it out with a fair number of high school stereotypes, providing an easy entrance for viewers who may not be familiar with those figures.
The film is primarily about the love triangle of Ellie, Paul, and Aster, but Wu smartly explores how, especially in hormonal teenagers, feelings can be extremely fluid. Aster is in a relationship with a narcissistic jock, who believes everyone loves him, including Ellie. Meanwhile, Ellie reluctantly helps Paul, but the more they work together, the more each starts to like the other in ways that are confusing for both of them. And Aster has to reconcile the bumbling demeanor of Paul in person with the eloquent letters and message she gets from “him.”
Wu mixes in elements of Ellie’s Chinese heritage, giving her extended moments with her widowed father, watching movies and cooking in their cramped kitchen. She also shows but never overplays the casual racism that Ellie encounters, such as when certain students shout “Chugga-chugga-Chu-Chu!” at her.
Lewis plays her role almost perfectly, making her buttoned-down and bookish but with a quiet confidence when the time calls for it. Diemer makes for a great foil, with his Cro-Magnon look and dumb but earnest delivery. The character of Aster could be just the ideal dream girl with no depth, but Wu gives her plenty of background and Lemire knows exactly how to play every moment she’s given.
The Half of It has a lot going on, but it manages to keep all of it flowing in a coherent and fun manner. With a fantastic concept, it features more than a few surprises along the way, easily elevating it way above your typical high school movie.