Indie Focus: A lost voice returns with ‘The Half of It’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Instead of a typical summer movie preview, this week we took a look at how Hollywood is responding to this strange lost time with theaters closed and production on hold.

Jen Yamato and I reached out to directors, producers, actors and below-the-line craftspeople to get their thoughts and feelings on what it will take to get working again and audiences back into theaters and what post-pandemic working conditions might look like.


“We’re going to have to adapt. I’m fundamentally an optimist, but these are challenging times and they challenge anyone’s optimism,” Kenneth Branagh said. “I do think that a desire for the communal experience is who we are, and I hope that we have the privilege of being able to return to it sometime soon.”

Ryan Faughnder wrote about what movie theaters are doing to make audiences feel safe to return. He and Anousha Sakoui also looked at how productions are preparing to resume, and Amy Kaufman wrote about how the production shutdown is affecting the world of documentaries.

Josh Rottenberg wrote about some of the movies that have shifted to VOD from planned theatrical releases, including Branagh’s “Artemis Fowl.” And Glenn Whipp surveyed the upcoming Oscar season and how the trickle-down impact of the pause on studio releases will impact the schedule later in the year.

He and Justin Chang dove into the history of summer movies — and Justin invented something of a play-along game for the summer movie season that wasn’t, inviting readers to vote on their favorites released each week over the years.

If you are reading this newsletter on Friday, you could be in for a real treat. The streaming service Mubi, along with distributor Music Box Films, is making “Ema,” the latest film from Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, available free for one day only. Starring Gael García Bernal and Mariana di Girolamo, the film is a dazzling exploration of regret, told in an expressive, kinetic style, and features astonishing dance sequences.

In more regrettable news, the Indian actor Irrfan Khan died this week from cancer at age 53. A superstar in his home country, he was known to American audiences for his appearances in films such as “The Namesake” and “The Lunchbox” as well as “Life of Pi,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” He contained all the magnetic charisma of a true star but was also capable of the deep emotions of a real actor.

Lorraine Ali wrote an appreciation of Kahn. “The cinema is where we often go to see our best and worst selves, and to gain access to buried parts of our lives that are too painful to touch outside the safety of a theater or film. Khan was a conduit to that pain and love, that loss and redemption; a master in the art of emotive silence, as [Kal] Penn pointed out, he performed that special trick of only the most luminous stars: To impart grace in the least graceful of places.”

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‘The Half of It’

The first film from writer-director Alice Wu since her debut “Saving Face” in 2005, “The Half of It” is a young adult rom-com set in a small town in Washington state. Borrowing from “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the film follows a young woman named Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) as she ghostwrites love notes from a football player (Daniel Diemer) to the girl (Alexxis Lemire) on whom she has a crush. ”The Half of It” was set to premiere as part of the canceled Tribeca Film Festival, where it nevertheless won the top prize in the festival’s U.S. narrative feature competition. The movie is available now on Netflix.

Reviewing for The Times, Kevin Crust wrote, “Ultimately, ‘The Half of It’ and its multilayered title are about the expansiveness of love, with the romantic kind being just one among equals. It’s about friendship and family, the acceptance of self and others, and the freedom to be who you are and screw up royally along the way. … Wu is confident enough to make the bold strokes her characters speak of and craft a movie that’s comfortably different. Almost 16 years after ‘Saving Face’ made her a voice to reckon with, Wu is back and we’re happy to have her.”

At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri called the movie “so tenderhearted and transporting, its characters so likable, that you can’t help but want to give the movie and everyone in it a big hug.” Also for Vulture, Alison Willmore profiled Wu, who said of leaving and coming back to filmmaking, “I’m like a weird forest animal that’s in some part of the forest that no one ever goes to. … Literally, someone was like, ‘You know, what we need is an Asian lesbian. There’s one!’”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “What’s wonderful about ‘The Half of It’ is the way it respects everyone’s insecurities, without letting its characters get away with their biases. Ellie feels like an outsider, perhaps not so much because she’s a person of color in a mostly white town but because she’s so much smarter than everyone else — and also happens to be gay. … When you’re young and you long to be in love, friendship somehow seems like less, even when it may be more. Yet there’s no denying that love triangles hurt like hell. Why do you think their points are shaped like arrows?”


For Vox, Emily VanDerWerff wrote that in the movie’s third act, “everything falls apart in incredibly disappointing fashion. The many storylines Wu was juggling with only a few bobbles to that point start to collide into each other, and she drops more than a few. The missed landing is the difference between this being the next ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before'-size hit for Netflix and it being just another Netflix movie that sinks without much of a cultural ripple.”

For the New York Times, Kyle Turner wrote, “The husky-voiced Lewis embodies, with palpable anguish, the stinging contradictions of emotional freedom and romantic fraudulence that abound when writing these notes. In letters (or over text), you can be anybody and yourself at once, and Wu suffuses the film with a painfully mature understanding of the ache of longing for the impossible. With tenderness, humor and beauty, ‘The Half of It’ comprehends the chasm between wanting and being.”

Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire in a scene from "The Half Of It."
(KC Bailey/Netflix)


From French filmmaker and musician Quentin Dupieux, best known for his oddball movie “Rubber” about a tire that gains sentience, comes “Deerskin.” The film follows a man (“The Artist” star Jean Dujardin) who responds to his midlife crisis by buying an absurd suede jacket. As he becomes involved with a local bartender (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Adèle Haenel) by trying to convince her he is a filmmaker, things get increasingly complicated, psychotic and bloody.


For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “This desire to rid the world of any and all jackets is Georges’ central fixation, and it’s one of the movie’s many indications that he isn’t just your garden-variety narcissist. … It’s his honest belief that no one else should be allowed to wear a coat of any kind. The marvel of Dujardin’s performance is that he embodies this conviction as if it were the most natural, intuitive thing in the world. He shows us a man slipping almost imperceptibly from one level of derangement to the next.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “Like ‘Rubber,’ Dupieux’s 2011 tale of a homicidal tire, ‘Deerskin’ is slight and forcefully eccentric. As with Georges’s personality, audiences will be split: The movie’s dive into one lonely man’s lunacy isn’t entirely successful. Yet Dujardin’s commitment to his batty character is unflinching. Gazing admiringly at his outfit in the mirror, Georges can’t get over his ‘killer style’ — a self-compliment he will, perhaps unknowingly, soon be taking all too literally.”

For Rolling Stone, David Fear wrote that “this isn’t just a movie about unstable, unmoored men trying to get their mojo back — it’s also about a horror film about moviemaking. … And when Georges’ scenes start to include stalking and the aggressive use of sharp objects, [Denise] finds herself taking a more active role in literally and figuratively calling the shots. Like the blind Mrs. Stephens says in ‘Peeping Tom': All this filming isn’t healthy.”

Jean Dujardin in the movie "Deerskin."
(Greenwich Entertainment)


‘The Infiltrators’

Directed by Alex Rivera ad Cristina Ibarra, “The Infiltrators” is a hybrid of documentary and fiction filmmaking that tells the story of a group of young undocumented immigration activists who decide to get sent to a Florida detention center on purpose, in order to work to free other detainees from the inside.

I reviewed the film for The Times, writing, “With its inside-out prison break story, ‘The Infiltrators’ has the energy of a crime thriller crossed with the urgency of a social issue documentary. The bulk of the events in the film are from 2012, and when the story leaps ahead to 2016 with the election of the current administration, things take an ominous turn. Watching the movie now in our current moment, ‘The Infiltrators’ shows people making the best of a bad situation and finding ways to move forward both as individuals and toward greater common goals.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “Jumping between wildly dissimilar styles makes for an occasionally jarring film. Yet despite this awkwardness, the movie works. The narrative approach represents a risk taken by the filmmakers, and their daring suits the story they are trying to tell. For a group of activists who took chances with their own legal status, only a comparably experimental cinematic style could do their efforts justice.”

For The Wrap, Carlos Aguilar reviewed the movie when it premiered last year at Sundance, where it won two prizes. “Bringing down the wall from within is the heroic campaign that NIYA [National Immigrant Youth Alliance], and countless others organizations like United We Dream, are pursuing, not to antagonize but as an act of self-defense. To that end, ‘The Infiltrators’ is eye-opening on both sides: It delivers an encouraging example of the power of a united people, and it opens a window into the abuses and inhumane separations that are carried out under the guise of protecting the nation.”

Manuel Uriza (left) and Maynor Alvarado (wearing glasses) in "The Infiltrators."
(Oscilloscope Films)