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Leah Lewis, left, and Daniel Diemer in Netflix's The Half of It.Netflix/Netflix

  • The Half of It
  • Written and directed by Alice Wu
  • Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer and Alexxis Lemire
  • Classification PG; 104 minutes

Rating:

2.5 out of 4 stars

The Half of It arrives to Netflix’s ever-expanding family of young-adult rom-coms as the moodier, more anxiety-wracked cousin of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or The Kissing Booth. Although the marketing for the new film – from its sunny poster to its aw-shucks trailer – tries to position it as zippy, even disposable fun, Alice Wu’s work is admirably rougher, in ways good and bad, than the rest of the streaming giant’s YA clan.

Maybe it's the Sartre quote that opens the film, or the fact that the film's lead, small-town closeted teen Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), is so shy that her voice barely registers above a whisper and her lips never come close to arching upward into a smile. Either way, it is clear from the film's first few minutes that Wu is aiming for a slightly more serious, less disposable mindset than her Netflix contemporaries, even if her Cyrano de Bergerac-riffing plot isn't exactly novel to either rom-com or YA circles.

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For her second feature, director Alice Wu assembles what feels like half a personal tale of longing and half a corporately massaged teen drama.KC Bailey/Netflix

In the ultrareligious, no-future American town of Squahamish (don’t take that naming as a compliment, people of Squamish, B.C.), Ellie lives a quiet life of bookish loneliness. Her only friend seems to be her depressed, train-station-minding father, her major pastime is writing other students’ essays for cash and the object of her affection is the by-all-accounts straight artist Aster (Alexxis Lemire). To break up this outsider life comes dim-but-sweet Paul (Daniel Diemer), who asks Ellie to help ghostwrite love letters to Aster in the hopes of wooing her away from her jock boyfriend (Wolfgang Novogratz). And so begins a unique-ish love triangle, in which secrets will be revealed, hearts will be broken and lessons will be learned.

For her second feature – 15 long years after her acclaimed indie Saving Face – Wu assembles what feels like half a personal tale of longing and half a corporately massaged teen drama. There are moments of genuine pain and longing – mostly when Ellie manages her relationship with her Mandarin-speaking father – and in ways both obvious and telegraphed, Ellie is a rarely seen kind of on-screen heroine. But the film is also weighed down with a hokey record-scratch moment, a triumphant big-game sequence and a church-set finale that seems to be aping The Graduate, but doesn’t quite have the courage to fully embrace the comedy of the moment.

If The Half of It gets, um, half of the viewership Netflix expects it to, though, then perhaps it will open the floodgates for more, and different, attempts to mine the YA goldmine. And that’s reason enough to welcome it to the streaming giant’s growing, dysfunctional family.

The Half of It is available to stream on Netflix starting May 1

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