This week we’re watching another Netflix original, the clever and charming teen romantic comedy “The Half of It” (2020) written and directed by Alice Wu. The core dramatic narrative is a familiar one, the sort of tale that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare and probably much farther, but these days we would just call it a “Cyrano” story for short, alluding to the masterpiece Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) by French playwright Edmond Rostand. Even if you don’t get the reference, you know the story.
The Cyrano Story: A sweet but dumb guy has a huge crush on “Roxanne,” a beautiful woman, and, knowing he lacks the charm and romance to woo her, the big lug solicits the aid of “Cyrano,” his smarter, wittier friend who has some deformity or hang-up that prevents him (or her) from ever finding true love for himself but who is more than willing the help the big galoot win the heart of his dream girl. Initially it seems to work, but of course Cyrano himself already has deep feelings for Roxanne, which is why the ruse is so successful. But eventually Roxanne discovers that the guy she thinks she’s been dating is really just a ventriloquist’s dummy. Roxanne feels angry and duped, but she gets over it and realizes she’s been in love with Cyrano all along and it doesn’t really matter than he has a big ugly nose.
Apologies for any light spoilers you may detect in that Cyrano synopsis, but I’m sure you’ve seen movies that follow this simple pattern before. That’s the universally recognized cultural touchstone from with Wu is working in her film. But Wu adds her own spins to this timeworn tale. She gives us another Asian-American protagonist to fall in love with and cheer along her way. (Kudos to Netflix for following up the success of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” with another teen romance about a young woman of color.) But Wu also queers the familiar love triangle to give the story a whole new cultural relevance for us in the 21st century.
Like many of the movies we’ve watched in this media studies series, “The Half of It” features smart, snappy, and occasionally snarky dialogue. In the post-Gilmore Girls, social-media-infused world, teen and YA audiences are hyper-aware and hyper-verbal, so they expect the same from the characters in the films and television they watch.
This movie also ups the ante on cultural literacy with the references to films and literature that Ellie weaves into the love letters she writes for her friend. You’ll notice that just like last week’s movie “The Space Between Us,” this film rewards viewers who are able to pick up on its allusions to Wim Wender’s beautiful arthouse film “Wings of Desire” (1987) as well as several other iconic works, including “Casablanca” (1942), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel Remains of the Day (1989), and French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s most famous play “No Exit” (1944). Director Wu has said she included these references to specific works because they all prominently feature love triangles, but said she also hopes that young fans will seek them out and watch them.
I’m with her. If you enjoy this film, and I very much believe you will, I would encourage you to follow Wu’s suggestions for other related films to explore. Don’t forget to read the discussion questions, and have fun this weekend watching “The Half of It.”