But by telling a personal tale inspired by elements of her own young life, Wu achieves both singularity and universality. And it helps a great deal that the actress functioning as her stand-in has such a smart and compelling screen presence. Leah Lewis stars as Ellie Chu, a studious and shy Chinese-American immigrant who’s the only Asian kid in fictional Squahamish, Washington. Ellie may seem innocent but she’s savvy enough to have developed a booming business writing essays for cash; this also allows her to help support the cramped apartment she shares with her widower dad (Collin Chou), an engineer who spends quiet evenings watching classic movies like “Casablanca” to improve his English.
Into this vivid setting, Wu introduces two characters who will force Ellie to emerge from her lonely shell. Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) is the sweetly oafish tight end on the high school’s terrible football team. He asks Ellie to help him write a love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire, no relation to … well, me), a beautiful newcomer who’s reluctantly found herself ensconced in the popular clique. While Paul is drawn to Aster for her looks, Ellie’s attraction runs deeper as she recognizes something more substantive within her. What was supposed to have been just one letter eventually leads to a back-and-forth on text message, with Ellie-in-disguise exchanging book and film references and philosophical musings that Paul could never muster. There’s an infectious energy to this clever correspondence, which ironically allows Ellie to express who she really is, maybe for the first time. Similarly, Aster gets comfortable enough to share that she feels like a bit of a misfit herself. Lemire has such a lovely presence, she makes you wish that her character were fleshed out a bit more; Aster ends up feeling like an idealized figure for both Ellie and Paul to swoon over in their own ways, but perhaps that’s the point.
The more meaty and moving relationship actually occurs between Ellie and Paul themselves. He initially comes off as a doofus but he’s genuine, loyal and has a heart of gold, and he unexpectedly becomes the first real friend Ellie’s ever had. Diemer brings a puppy-doggish authenticity and likability to the role that are quite charming. Conversely, Ellie inspires Paul to dig within himself and learn how to make more meaningful connections than he’s grown accustomed to with his idiot football buddies—their practice conversations over table tennis serve as a sweet training montage—and in the process, she learns to open up and trust people.