Here's your Ellie Chu-approved reading guide and streamable watch list — and what it all means.
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These are no Clueless kids or Mean Girls: The teens of The Half of It, the high school dramedy that hit Netflix this weekend, would rather hit the arthouse cinema than the mall.

Alice Wu’s reinterpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac stars Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu, an intellectual teenage girl who starts writing love letters on behalf of Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) to popular girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), whom Ellie also secretly loves herself. Over the course of their complex correspondence, Ellie finds that she and Aster share erudite tastes in film and literature — and starts trying to educate the lovestruck Paul on French existentialist drama and New German Cinema.

“Everything has a triangle,” Wu reveals of Ellie’s cultural picks — and they don’t stop there. “In fact, to my production designer, I was like, ‘Put as many triangles in the film as you can come up with!’”

From throwaway dialogue from the math and band teachers to Aster’s boyfriend’s name (Trig), triangles are everywhere in The Half of It, and the three-sided love stories that Ellie favors reflect the one that she herself is trapped in. But that’s not the only common denominator among these films and books. “I didn’t put anything in there that I don’t personally, deeply love,” Wu says. “And secretly, I would fricking love it if someone, some teen, watched this and was like, ‘I’ve never heard of Wings of Desire, I’m going to go watch it now.’ That feels like a delicious thing to have happen.”

The Half Of It

Casablanca (1942)

The first Chu movie night depicted in The Half of It is a viewing of Michael Curtiz’s devastatingly romantic WWII classic Casablanca, the tale of a love triangle that would one day, decades later, be deliberated at length in When Harry Met Sally…. We see only the very ending and the famous line “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” — fittingly, right at the beginning of the story of Ellie and Paul’s beautiful friendship.

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Remains of the Day (1989)

Aster loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker Prize winner, apparently for “all that barely repressed longing,” as she dreamily tells Ellie in the school hallway. “He’s struggling between his place in society [and] this woman he loves,” Wu says of the novel’s protagonist, the dignified Mr. Stevens. Ellie also seems to have an appreciation for the book, but she thinks 1993’s eight-time Oscar-nominated Merchant Ivory film adaptation could have used more Nazis.


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Wings of Desire (1987)

Mr. Chu loves Wim Wenders’ 1987 fantasy despite it not being helpful as he learns English; Aster loves it enough to confidently call Ellie/Paul out for plagiarizing Wenders in the first love letter. The triangle in the film comes down to “the angel and his choice to [remain] an angel or fall to earth and be a human,” Wu says of the iconic film, a city symphony of a pre-reunified Berlin.

“I’m also playing a little bit of a game myself,” Wu teases. “There are favorite movies and favorite filmmakers that I personally have that I’m totally paying homage to at various points, like, quietly, throughout the film, as my own private sort of game. [And] one obvious one is in Wings of Desire, like the shot on her shoulder — I tried to do some mimicking of that in the hot springs.”

No Exit (1944)

No Exit talks about how hell is other people,” says Lewis. “By studying up on that, I was able to really understand how kind of stuck these characters, especially Ellie, were in their ways.” Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist play, which Wu calls “the ultimate doomed triangle,” becomes a central text for the teens of The Half of It, who long to leave the hell that is Squahamish but are bound by strong invisible ties, which Paul sums up in a passionate outburst about his taco-sausage dreams. Really!


The Philadelphia Story (1940)

“The key thing about The Philadelphia Story is that it’s a plea for tolerance,” Ellie tells Paul as part of his cultural education; the other key thing is that it’s one of the most iconic love triangles (rectangles?) in cinematic history. “I don’t want to be worshiped, I want to be loved,” Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord says in the snippet of George Cukor’s classic that plays during The Half of It — and Aster’s letters basically admit the same thing.

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And since Aster and Ellie-as-Paul become locked in “a debate over who’s the better Hepburn,” you can weigh in on the argument yourself by pairing Philadelphia Story with Roman Holiday (after which you will inevitably realize that there is no choice but to crown Audrey the winner of any Hepburn-off, and that’s the whole of it).

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City Lights (1931)

Paul joins Ellie and her father for a viewing of Charlie Chaplin’s charming pre-Code silent film, a romantic comedy in which his “Tramp” falls for a blind flower girl who — appropriately — doesn’t know the true identity of her admirer.

Ek Villain (2014)

“For whatever weird reason, I actually love subways and trains,” Wu admits. “I have to investigate that in myself. I don’t know why I love that so much!” She pays homage to her great love of public transportation not only with Ellie’s life at the train station — for the symbolism of Ellie “basically watching other people live their lives as they go zipping by” — but also with her selection of Mohit Suri’s thriller. The viewing inspires a telling conversation in which Paul thinks it’s “kinda sweet” while Ellie argues it’s “kinda trite” to watch a man chase a train with a girl on it. Oh Ellie, just wait until the end of your own movie!

His Girl Friday (1940)

Howard Hawks’ classic screwball comedy, in which a newspaper boss tries to keep his ace reporter — and ex-wife — on staff despite her plans to quit and get married. “I want to go someplace where I can be a woman,” says Rosalind Russell’s Hildy in the snippet shown we see here. In addition to being a love triangle, it’s also a sly nod to The Half of It’s own backstory: Just as Wu gender-swapped her Cyrano character so did His Girl Friday turn Hildy, who was written as a man in the play on which the film was based, into an iconic heroine of the silver screen.

Cyrano de Bergerac (1897)

While we’re at it, why not throw it all the way back and check out Edmond Rostand's brilliant play that inspired The Half of It in the first place? None of the characters have seen Wings of Desire, but I can assure you they all have a lot of feelings about Don Quixote!


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