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Film Review: The Half of It

9 May 20 words: Roshan Chandy

Sexuality, race and religion battle it out in this supremely accessible Cyrano update...

Director: Alice Wu
Starring: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire
Running time: 104 minutes

The trend for transporting literary classics to a high school setting has been around ever since Clueless (1995) swapped “Austintatious” Highbury for hip-hoppin’ Hollywood and Emma Woodhouse for Cher Horowitz. Meanwhile, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) added student hormones to the recipe for Shakespearean tragicomedy and the themes of social stigmatising and shaming found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter felt ever so cool and contemporary in Easy A (2010).

So if Emma, The Taming of the Shrew and The Scarlet Letter can provide the basis for whip-smart teen movies, why can’t Cyrano de Bergerac? Indeed Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, featuring a French cadet swooning over a beautiful woman while worrying his “obnoxiously large nose” will prevent him from wooing her, seems ripe for re-imagining in the selfie-snapping, tweeting age of 2020.

The titular Cyrano de Bergerac is embodied by Daniel Diemer as Paul Munsky, a school jock who is rather infatuated with Aster (Alexxis Lemire) - the black-haired beauty on the block. He struggles to articulate his love for the lady of his dreams and thus enlists the help of the shy, introverted Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) to write a letter confessing his affections.

Ellie is a Chinese American student living with a lonely and reclusive single father. Her biggest secret, however, which she has hidden her whole life is her sexuality. She’s secretly in love with Aster and is pretty sure that the lady who is dating the tall, dark, hunky Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz) doesn’t return her longings.

What was once a thought-provoking commentary on physical attraction and beauty from the eye of the beholder becomes an equally inspired one on hidden homosexuality. Just as Cyrano feared his “obnoxiously large nose” would bar him from winning the heart of the glamorous Roxane, Ellie is fraught with anxiety that her feelings are not shared by her crush and therefore feels the need to hide them. Something which carves a powerful and relevant shell both across history and in so many parts of the world where people still have to hide their sexuality.

What struck me most was just how accessible it is

With LGBTQ trimmings freshly picked apart, The Half of It goes one step further by adding language and the immigrant experience into its mix. In one scene, Ellie and her father (Collin Chou) are snuggled around the telly watching a French film. “This isn’t even American. How are you going to learn English?” she ponders and, in doing so, raises poignant questions about the language barriers that prevent so many immigrants from fully integrating into society.

For example, Ellie’s father - once a talented engineer with a PhD back in China - is forced to scrape a living signalling trains due to his inability to speak English. Duties he neglects thanks to depression over the death of his wife years earlier. These very duties are left for Ellie to perform as dad sits and wallows in self-pity while chomping on sausage wraps.

Ellie’s studious academic successes in literature and art absolutely fit the mould of the kind of exceptionally hard-working Chinese student seen so often in media portraits. She’s a metaphor for a culture well known for pushing their children to achieve the highest standards. Her responsibilities in terms of doing the jobs her father should be doing are symbolic of filial duty where young people are hoisted up to the frontline when it comes to serving the household.

The Half of It dabbles with religion too. Ellie plays piano in her church, but has no belief in God. Aster is a pastor’s daughter and firm believer. There’s a lovely, steamy moment of the two ladies luxuriating in a lake as they muse simultaneously about their spiritual viewpoints. When unsure about the prospect of marriage to big, brash, boring Trig, Aster coos “God doesn’t know either”. Ellie confesses she has no belief in higher powers. “That must be so nice” Aster rebuffs only to be struck with the surprising concept that Ellie finds her own personal lack of faith “lonely”.

With sexuality, race and religion battling it out for on-screen attention, you could almost forgive Alice Wu’s film for feeling awfully worthy and a tad dirgy. It may be entirely necessary to critically deconstruct the various social stratospheres clawing away in The Half of It, but what struck me most, having seen it twice, was just how accessible it is. That’s a credit to the cultured writing, potent performances and Aster’s megawatt smile - and that’s the same in any language!

Did you know? This is director Alice Wu's first feature film since 2004's Saving Face.

The Half of It is now available on Netflix

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