Two out of every three Netflix Original films aren’t worth the price of admission.
They’re the bargain bin, direct-to-DVD level fodder usually starring David Spade or that one girl who used to be on that one television show back in the day. You don’t remember her name, but it doesn’t really matter.
With the coronavirus pandemic keeping movie theaters closed, it’s prime ground for viewers to flock to streaming services like Netflix in spades. But how do you decipher the good from the bad while thumbing through titles at random based on algorithms and past viewing history?
Netflix hopes audiences will use their formulas to find movies like “The Lovebirds,” a subpar comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae that the streamer bought from Paramount Pictures after COVID-19 made its way across the United States.
With endless suggestions of “You Might Also Like” or “Recommended for You,” it’s a film with minority stars with name appeal that the service wants to draw attention to.
Hidden somewhere in the middle, however, is a smaller independent film, “The Half of It,” dropped as an “original” about a month ago with no word of mouth and without the technical profile afforded to bigger names in lesser films.
Writer/director Alice Wu’s romantic comedy based loosely around the classic tale of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Half of It” follows Ellie, a young Asian-American girl out of place in rural Washington convinced by a jock to write a love letter to his crush, only to find herself falling for the crush as well.
It’s a film that quotes Oscar Wilde and opens with an animated sequence recreating an Ancient Greek myth about the separation of the soul, longing to find your other half and that feeling when the two halves meet. Sophisticated in its language but relatable at its core, “The Half of It” is an earnest, well-made romantic dramedy released at the perfect time for those looking for simple goodness.
Star of television’s “Nancy Drew,” newcomer Leah Lewis blends a wry humor and kind soul with the sort of hopeless romanticism that people feel but never truly express. She’s able to express Ellie’s isolation as an outsider from an emotional level but in a way that feels honest for a character naturally reserved and apprehensive about her perception among her peers.
Daniel Diemer gives Paul an endearing naïveté that makes the typical jock character feel richer and less of a simpleton stereotype. His Paul wears his heart on his sleeve but has no idea how to show its and Diemer plays this well with facial expressions that make his longing seem charming and his pleading for help romantic rather than desperate.
Alexxis Lemire does a wonderful job playing Aster with a performance typical of the ideal “manic pixie dream girl” trope of certain romantic comedies, the love interest audiences can relate to and adore from afar without ever truly getting to know. Lemire is enthusiastically approachable while working with Wu to create a character that hides her true feelings and intentions behind a candy-coated wall of innocence.
Wu’s adoration for these three characters envelopes the entirety of “The Half of It,” from her nuanced screenplay to the way in which she directs the film and positions the audiences firmly in Ellie’s corner with lingering feelings for those she comes into contact with.
The film’s romances are not about lusting but rather innocent longing, which gives “The Half of It” a wholesome feel without becoming overly sappy. As Ellie suggests during an early narration, this isn’t a love story or “at least one where anyone gets what they want.”
There’s a sense of authenticity to this sort of storytelling, an honesty that comes out in the screenplay and the performances that make “The Half of It” feel earnest and plausible in viewers’ own lives even if the actual events would never occur to them or someone they know.
Though it wanders off at times with superfluous side plots, the core triangle of pseudo-friendship and romance-at-a-distance between Ellie, Paul and Aster are so compelling that makes “The Half of It” an elegant, yet simple and sincere independent dramedy well worth checking out on Netflix.