By Maureen Lee Lenker
May 01, 2020 at 07:00 AM EDT
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KC Bailey/Netflix

Ever since John Hughes made them an art form unto themselves, high school movies have held a rarefied place in our culture, providing a cinematic opportunity to speak to both current teens and remind older audiences of the young loves, broken hearts, and friendships that once seemed to mean so much (and likely played an essential role in forging who they are today).

But even given the subgenre's venerable history, Netflix has blown it out into its own major category. The streamer's latest entry, The Half of It (out now), offers a tale of unexpected friendship and sexual identity. Transferring the trappings of Cyrano de Bergerac to a small Pacific Northwest town, the Alice Wu film follows shy, book smart, closeted Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) as she agrees to write love letters for a jock, only to fall for the object of his affection. Things get further complicated as Ellie and Paul (Daniel Diemer) forge a deep, warm friendship.

Wu tenderly handles this exploration of barely repressed longing; she understands the painful awkwardness of high school and transcends classic Hollywood takes on cliques and mean girls. That’s mostly down to pitch-perfect casting, particularly with the quietly luminous Lewis at the film's heart. Here, teenagers feel like real gawky young adults, instead of the polished twenty-somethings who far exceed the attractiveness of real high schoolers in all their pubescent, hormonal glory.

Lewis and Diemer make for divine foils, which only makes the beauty of their unlikely friendship more resonant: He of a human golden retriever-like quality, kind, eager, and loyal; she exquisite in her stillness, making Ellie a tightly coiled spring of barely contained longing. As Aster Flores, the fiercely intelligent object of their affections, Alexxis Lemire walks a tightrope between Paul’s earnestness and Ellie’s reserve. Her cool girl persona is a mask for the roiling artist underneath, even if she is too often weighted down with the thankless task of playing the idealized cipher of both Paul and Ellie’s fantasies.

The Half of It's examination of first love, and how our messy, well-intentioned attempts to do right by our own hearts can both wound and help us fumble toward the people we’re meant to be, lands nicely. Near the end of the film, Ellie reflects on the search for love. She says, “It’s not finding your perfect half, it’s trying and reaching and failing.” That line could be a metaphor for the film itself, given that the movie's interest in setting up its conclusion as a new beginning for each member of the central trio renders its ending somewhat forgettable.

Wu deconstructs the romance film here, complicating narratives and avoiding a traditional happy ending. It’s not that it requires romantic closure or some grand gesture building to a final kiss, but rather that the numerous narrative threads snarl themselves into a knot and then move on with little fanfare. But if The Half of It lacks the pizzazz and energy of similar Netflix fare, and doesn't have much to say beyond its initial setup, it at least takes a stab at doing something different. B

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