When a nerd and a jock are the stars of a romantic comedy, there’s always the same formula: Girl meets boy, boy ignores her because he’s chasing after pretty popular girl, girl gets makeover, boy falls in love with nerdy girl now that her glasses are off. Okay, so that’s just the plot of She’s All That. And while that ’90s film will always be a rom-com classic, I have to say: There’s a new teen romance that’s everything I wish She’s All That could have been.
The Half of It, now on Netflix, challenges so many teen rom-com tropes we’ve come to accept over the years. Here there are no rowdy parties or heated make-out sessions. Brawls don’t break out because two guys are fighting over one girl. No one storms off in tears in the rain. The only love triangle in the movie is between two girls and a guy—and the majority of the triangle doesn’t even know it exists because Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is pretending to be someone else when she writes love letters as Paul (Daniel Diemer) to his crush Aster (Alexxis Lemire).
Another thing that’s fresh about The Half of It: Ellie is a character that would normally be in the background of a movie like this. She’s a nerdy Chinese-American outcast who spends her time writing essays for other students and avoiding the racist insults hurled at her by her classmates. As a Korean-American who was perpetually bullied in an almost entirely white high school, I relatedly deeply to Ellie—more than any character I’d ever seen. But even without that personal connection, The Half of It tells a more compelling and nuanced story than most teen movies.
Ellie does undergo a makeover of sorts, but not in the form of taking off her glasses and letting down her ponytail before the big dance. Over the course of the movie, she forms a connection with Aster through the letters (and eventual texts) she writes. They share the same level of intelligence, taste in literature, and appreciation for the more subtly beautiful parts of life and art. At the same time, she forges an unexpected friendship with Paul, who also bonds with her widowed father over food. What I love is that there are no ulterior motives from these characters—just incredibly pure moments of friendship that make the film feel so special.
There are bits of romance, of course. Paul is “in love with”—but really just infatuated with—Aster, and Ellie has feelings for Aster. But the movie shows us that there are many different forms of love for Ellie. It’s in the familial bond between with her dad, the unlikely friendship with Paul, and the lesson that she can and will prioritize herself over any guy or girl. Even when there is a kiss in the movie, which I won’t spoil here, it isn’t about wrapping things up neatly in a bow. It’s about growing as a person.
Ultimately, calling The Half of It a romantic comedy only covers, well, the half of it. The whole story is really Ellie’s journey from wallflower to blossoming young woman—one who doesn’t need someone else to complete her. To all the rom-coms I’ve seen before, take note: This is the message we should be sharing with young women, not that they need to change themselves to get their happily ever after. Ellie Chu is the real Cinderella story I needed at 16, and she’s the one I deserve and finally found now at 29, too.
The Half of It is now streaming on Netflix.
Originally Appeared on Glamour