Take “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Make the title character a woman. Set it in high school.
There: You have “The Half of It,” an endearingly awkward teen romantic comedy premiering on Netflix May 1. Written and directed by Alice Wu, it has tart things to say about growing up bookish, Asian, and gay in small-town America while coating the proceedings in John Hughes-style powdered sugar. The two tastes don’t always mix well, but they mix enough.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is the kind of head-down classroom grind the other kids don’t notice other than to pay her to write their English papers (a sideline that her teacher, played by Becky Ann Baker, looks upon indulgently, which should give you an idea of the film’s realism quotient). To her Pacific Northwest small town, she’s literally just “the Chinese girl,” and certainly no one notices how weak Ellie gets in the knees whenever she gazes longingly at the class dream girl, Aster (Alexxis Lemire).
Aster, a pastor’s daughter, is dating the arrogant school stud (a cartoonish Wolfgang Novogratz) but is adored from afar by Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a marble-mouthed football player who lives across the railroad tracks from Ellie and who convinces her to write his love letters to Aster against her saner instincts. You see where this is going? Correction: You’ve seen where this is going.
But the gender switch freshens things up, especially since the epistolary romance between Aster and “Paul” blooms into a full-on meeting of like minds. It turns out that Aster is a misfit hipster in prom-queen clothing — your kids might say she’s an Extra disguised as a Basic — and can recognize a line of dialogue from the Wim Wenders classic “Wings of Desire” when it’s dropped into a love letter.
The correspondence between the two is so emotionally intimate and moving, in fact, that it’s a shame “The Half of It” has to interrupt it for plot. Ellie doesn’t just live on the wrong side of the tracks, she lives on the tracks, since her depressive immigrant father (Edwin Chu, channeling Harry Dean Stanton in “Pretty in Pink”), works as the stationmaster. The signal booth becomes a classroom whiteboard for Daniel as Ellie tries to school him on high-minded subjects like classic movies and novels like “The Remains of the Day,” in the process of which boy comes to know girl and starts wondering if he’s falling for girl. Which is a problem, since girl clearly loves girl.
Writer-director Wu portrayed Asian-American lesbianism from an adult perspective in an earlier film, “Saving Face” (2004), and you can feel her shoehorning her material into the somewhat cramped quarters of a teen rom-com, a genre with which Netflix has had great success in recent years. The getting-to-know-you scenes between Ellie and Paul are bumptious and disarmingly sweet, the interactions between Ellie and Aster — who still has no idea Paul isn’t writing those letters — are dreamy and turned on. Everything surrounding those two deepening relationships plays as likably thin business as usual, including the climactic public confession(s) in front of a captive crowd.
The lead performers put it over, with Lewis very appealing as Ellie. She plays this small, fierce character as comfortable in her social invisibility yet increasingly exasperated by the insularity and ethnic slurs of her small town.
Wait, why doesn’t Paul just send Aster a text? He does eventually, but it takes too long to get there to be believable, and when it does happen it’s through an equally far-fetched comic setup. Too much of “The Half of It” doesn’t pass the smell test to play as the heartsore farce it aspires to be, even as the emotions at the movie’s core ring loud and true. There’s an R-rated romance itching to get out of this PG-13 confection. Maybe Netflix will let Alice Wu make that one next.
THE HALF OF IT
Written and directed by Alice Wu. Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire. Available on Netflix. 104 minutes. PG-13 (brief language, teen drinking)