But first, of course, comes the hard stuff. As “The Half of It” opens, the film’s heroine, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is suffering quietly through her senior year in the rainy doldrums of Squahamish, Wash., her ambitions to attend Grinnell College foiled by abiding loyalty to her widowed father (Collin Chou) and her own wobbly confidence. Although she makes extra money writing essays for her less hard-working classmates, Ellie is an outsider, enduring the jeers of car-riding classmates as she huffs and puffs on her bike to and from school. When a sweet, lunkheaded football player named Paul (Daniel Diemer) pays her $25 to write a flowery love letter to a sweet and pretty student named Aster (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie understandably balks. When he ups the price to $50, she’s all in.
Thus is set in motion a familiar plot of hidden identities, repressed passions and unexpected twists. But in Wu’s assured hands, the expected reversals give way to even more surprises, as Ellie and Paul discover heretofore hidden truths about themselves and each other. Texting wasn’t around when Edmond Rostand wrote the original play in the 19th century. Here, Wu uses it to clever effect, allowing her characters’ inner conflicts to be expressed in real and often contradictory time. Dotting the narrative with hat-tips to Plato, Camus and Sartre — not to mention “Casablanca,” “His Girl Friday” and “Wings of Desire” — Wu keeps the dialogue sharp and the feelings honest, managing to layer in some sincere spiritual questioning while putting her adolescent protagonists through the usual pressures of conformity, class snobbery, peers and parents. (“We are the source of our own hell,” Ellie’s teacher, played by Becky Ann Baker, intones wisely early in the film.)
Reminiscent of “10 Things I Hate About You” in its winning combination of smarts and romantic fantasy, “The Half of It” provides a fabulous showcase for its young lead actors: Raspy-voiced and flawlessly deadpan behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, Lewis seamlessly inhabits a character who may be shy but harbors stubborn faith in her own intelligence. Diemer delivers a delectably funny performance as the dimwitted foil for Ellie’s cerebral bookworm. (For evidence, look no further to the clueless look on his face when he’s gifted with a signed copy of “The Remains of the Day.”)
Early in “The Half of It,” Ellie informs the audience that no one will get what they want in the ensuing story (“Casablanca” is name-checked for a reason). But they will get what they need, in a film that brims with compassion for young characters who are still on the cusp of their most exhilarating and consequential life journeys. Wu suffuses “The Half of It” with supreme generosity, especially when she refuses to give her characters the resolutions they crave, and which similar narratives have taught the audience to crave for them. Instead, she sets them free — to take risks, mess up and figure things out for themselves. In other words, she gives them the happy ending every teenager deserves.
PG-13. Available May 1 via Netflix streaming. In English, Mandarin and Spanish with subtitles. Contains brief strong language and teen drinking. 104 minutes.