The Half of It, now streaming on Netflix, is a warm-hearted treat for all ages

Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in The Half of It. Picture: Netflix
Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in The Half of It. Picture: Netflix

The Half of It (PG)

4 stars

This gorgeously clever coming of age story was meant to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April this year, which would almost certainly have provided a wave of red-carpet hype.

But never mind if you haven't heard of it - just head to Netflix and settle in for a warm hearted, funny and really well-crafted movie about two girls, one boy, love letters and the art of romantic texting. It's writer-director Alice Wu's second film and there's as much pleasure here for Boomers and Gen-Xers as there is for Millenials and Zoomers. It's truly a delightful treat for all ages.

Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives in the remote small town of Squahamish with her sad, widowed father (Collin Chou).

She's an unpopular, nerdy student who loves literature and who makes money on the side writing brilliant essays for her classmates to hand in as their own work.

She's a poet and a thinker, at ease deconstructing Sartre, critiquing the brushstrokes of classical painting or analysing the latest important novel. She also has a crush on beautiful Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), daughter of the local pastor.

So, when brainless football jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) says he'll pay Ellie to write a love letter to Aster on his behalf, she refuses in horror.

But faced with her father's desperate financial situation she changes her mind.

Her job is to help Paul - who can hardly get three words out in the right order - to seduce Aster, and it's the letters and texting between the two girls that drive most of the story.

Aster is a romantic and an artist and - although she's dating the school's alpha male Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz) - is smitten enough by what she thinks are Paul's letters to take the bait for a new friendship.

What follows is a frequently hilarious comedy of errors, the story building to a climax at the school's talent night and after party.

Wu's excellent script is a riff on the central premise of Cyrano de Bergerac, updating 17th century quill and ink for 21st century mobile phone and emojis.

The way that Wu handles the complexities of showing multiple texts on the screen is a delight.

But what's really special about the movie is Wu's graceful touch in portraying the teenagers as sophisticated people with as much knowing as their parents, whilst infusing their characters with a tentative sense of exploration - especially of that tricky thing, love.

Lewis plays Ellie as profoundly asexual, and we are told at the very start of the film that this is not a romance.

She, Paul and Aster are all outsiders in the small town, constrained by history and family, and the real journey for all of them is not so much a sexual awakening as the discovery of agency.

The film's only weak moment is the engineering of an afternoon that Ellie and Aster spend together, undermined by Wu's determination to keep all physical representation of desire at bay.

But it's a small flaw with a film that's at its frequent best when Ellie is speaking, through Paul, to the object of her desire, breathlessly awaiting the exquisite response that pings back.

Diemar plays Paul as a drop-kick with a heart of gold, mining the space between stupidity and authenticity with care: we have to like this boy who makes sausages and grunts and plays football, stoically believing he's right for Aster - who by contrast is all poise and beauty.

Beyond the three well-drawn central characters are the usual set of teen movie figures: mean girls who needle Aster, and jackass pranksters who insult Ellie. They are there for the colour and some nice gags.

At the other end of the spectrum there are plenty of film and literary gags, with Ellie's dad an avid movie buff who loves Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story.

The film's music is also a treat, with songs from the good old days (Gordon Lightfoot and Chicago) as well as more recent tracks from Amy Carrigan and the Ruen Brothers.

It all adds up to a highly recommended evening's viewing on the couch.

This story An off-beat look at teen romance first appeared on The Canberra Times.