Every week, new original films debut on Netflix, Hulu, and other digital services, often films with modest budgets and limited fanfare. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.
The premise: Ellie ghostwrites papers and essays for the kids in her high school for a low, low fee. But when she’s conscripted by local meathead goofball Paul to write him love letters to Aster, one of the prettiest girls in school, Ellie doesn’t dare admit to anyone she has feelings for Aster, too. It’s Cyrano de Bergerac for queer girls, basically.
What it’s about: For roughly its first two-thirds, Netflix’s The Half of It was the teen rom-com of my dreams. Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer have terrific best friend chemistry as Ellie and Paul; director Alice Wu (making her first film since 2005’s Saving Face) made the movie’s rural Washington setting look especially picturesque; and Ellie slowly realizing that she has actual romantic feelings for Aster was handled very sweetly. As a woman married to another woman who comes from a town very similar to Ellie’s, it was the kind of story I wish I could have seen at 15.
Then the end of the movie arrives, and everything falls apart in incredibly disappointing fashion. The many storylines Wu was juggling with only a few bobbles to that point start to collide into each other, and she drops more than a few. The missed landing is the difference between this being the next To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before-size hit for Netflix and it being just another Netflix movie that sinks without much of a cultural ripple.
There are plenty of reasons to watch The Half of It nevertheless, starting with Lewis, who’s very good as the buttoned-down, awkward Ellie, a girl who seems to be a constant fixture in the lives of everyone in her high school but not really as a friend. The friendship that launches between her and Paul (and drives most of the movie, as Ellie courts Aster via instant messenger apps and old-fashioned snail mail, always pretending to be “Paul”) is easy and goofy, in a way that suggests the actors got along almost as well as their characters do.
And Wu’s eye for beautiful shots is present throughout the film. An opening narration about how the ancient Greeks believed that finding one’s soulmate was an act of finding the person who literally completed you is mirrored in a later shot of two characters floating in a local pool together, their faces reflected in the water below. The soft, warm lighting casts an autumnal glow across the entire film. And Wu’s camera evokes small-town life in a way that neither needlessly celebrates nor demonizes it.
But there are warning signs all the same. Aster (Alexxis Lemire) isn’t really allowed to be a character in the movie until too late, and it’s not really clear why there’s a teacher played by character actor legend Becky Ann Baker, who’s in maybe four scenes. Particularly in the third act, this movie feels like it had a full hour cut out of it.
And, again, that third act is kind of a disaster. There are some really terrific moments there — particularly where the movie leaves its central relationships — but they all hinge on a series of actions that the characters seem to undertake simply because the movie is almost over.
It’s too bad. There’s a great movie inside of The Half of It, and Wu is a tremendous talent who shouldn’t have to wait 15 years to make another feature film. Like too many Netflix movies, this one feels like the script needed a few more drafts.
Critical reception: Several critics have pointed out similar issues with the story but are more forgiving of it overall, thanks to the refreshing friendship between Ellie and Paul. Writes Variety’s Peter Debruge: “Wu’s unique take on teen angst hints at what else we’ve been missing by allowing studios to limit who can tell such stories. If the genre seems played out, or else rife with clichés, it’s a direct result of such exclusion. Expanding the field, as Netflix does, reveals that we still haven’t seen the half of it.” And Indiewire’s Jude Dry allows that “dramatically, The Half of It would have benefited from a more focused structure,” but concludes that Ellie is “such a refreshing and lovable character that you can’t blame everyone for wanting a piece of her, even if it’s only half.”
How to watch it: The Half of It begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, May 1.
Correction: The love interest for both Ellie and Paul is named Aster, not Astrid. The article has been updated!