Writer/director Alice Wu tells us in the beginning of The Half of It that none of the characters will get what they want, and she’s not lying. But that won’t stop you from rooting for all three characters in this love triangle. Leah Lewis plays Ellie, a Chinese-American who writes love letters for a jock named Paul (Daniel Diemer) to help him woo Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Don’t let the Cyrano de Bergerac/Roxanne concept throw you. This film does a good job forging its own trail with the material — not just in the same-sex twist, but in its development of strong, fully-fledged characters.
Lewis carries the film extraordinarily well. Wu writes her with a sense of duty and practicality, balanced with depth of soul and self-deprecating humor, and Lewis brings it all together. I expected co-stars Diemer and Lemire to be stuck in roles largely predicated by plot, but was happily surprised to see how Wu gives them each their own character arcs and audience accessibility. If you’re going to create a love triangle, do it like Wu does — don’t short-shrift any of those three corners. Make me feel for all parties involved until every possible resolution can only be bittersweet.
In addition to the strong performances and sophisticated characters, I also enjoyed the movie’s rural, upstate New York setting. Even though the characters constantly use cell phones for texting, The Half of It ostensibly takes place in a small town a long time ago, where there are no chain restaurants, only small mom-and-pop diners. Trains still run through town, everyone shows up for the high school’s football games, and Dad watches old movies on a cathode ray television.