The Half of It (4 stars)

The Half of It

The search for a soulmate is at the heart of this likeable teen dramedy from Alice Wu

Although it riffs smartly on high school movie and rom-com tropes, The Half of It comes with a warning from its heroine: 'In case you haven't guessed… this is not a love story,' she informs us early on, 'Or not one where anyone gets what they want.' Still, those interested in lessons in love will find plenty to chew over in a film that depicts a crafty, academic approach to wooing a potential partner, as a hapless footballer is schooled in seduction Cyrano de Bergerac style.

As Netflix did so successfully with their smash-hit teen flick To All the Boys I've Loved Before (and its recent sequel), The Half of It mixes things up by casting an Asian-American actress in the lead – in this case, the quietly charismatic Leah Lewis – but takes things further by making its protagonist gay.

Set in the fictional Squahamish, Lewis plays Ellie Chu, a Chinese-born, lonely 17-year-old of such enviable intellect she's able to flog essays to fellow students, helping her and her widowed train station manager father (Collin Chou) make ends meet. In need of extra cash, Ellie agrees to compose a love letter for amiable jock Paul (Daniel Diemer); unfortunately, the object of his infatuation, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), is the same girl Ellie has a crush on.

This dryly comic, indie-influenced film from writer-director Alice Wu paints a familiar picture of small-town ennui seen in countless teen forebears, but adds some freshness with its depiction of the immigrant experience: Ellie's father is languishing in a position he is vastly overqualified for; she's subject to casual racism at school. This jaded, unglamorous girl is a sympathetic outsider, bearing the weight of too-much responsibility, and her and the puppyish Paul make for an endearing double-act, learning from each other and bonding over Yakult and sausages. As Aster, Lemire has a lot of looking lovely to do, yet her character is imbued with intelligence and we're privy to her frustrations about her future and the pressure to fit in.

Philosophical by nature and culturally literate (it quotes Plato and Oscar Wilde and features films like His Girl Friday and Casablanca), The Half of It pitches itself at youthful, and not so youthful, romantics who know or suspect that love doesn't come easy, and can handle a half-happy ending. It's an engaging take on a tale we've seen a thousand times, as our heroine figures herself out and begins her messy quest for the one.

Available to watch on Netflix from Fri 1 May.