The Cyrano love story is a pretty well-known trope nowadays. Every sitcom (and Disney channel original series) ever has had an episode where an “ugly” but smart character helps a “handsome” but dumb character seduce a clueless love interest.
Everyone knows how the story goes, but still, this formula is so good that writers keep using it.
What is the Cyrano love story?
This premise was created by Edmond Rostand in his play Cyrano de Bergerac. It follows the protagonist Cyrano, a smart but not-very-good-looking man as he helps Christian, a good looking but dumb guy woo the love interest, Roxane.
While there are many more characters in the play, the 3 protagonists always get a doppelganger in modern adaptations:
- Cyrano: someone who is smart and charming, but also insecure about his looks. It’s usually a nerdy character, and he may be in love/fall in love with the Roxane character by the end.
- Christian: he’s good looking but not very eloquent. In most adaptation, this character thinks that he is in love with the modern Roxane, but ends up realizing that it was just an infatuation.
- Roxanne: it’s the love interest. In basically all versions this character is clueless and doesn’t realize what is going on (even if the deceit is painfully obvious). By the end, Roxane either falls in love with Cyrano or refuses to date either of them.
This character is usually the one that the audience is meant to root for. A person who selflessly decides to help someone else at the cost of their own feelings. In the original play, Cyrano was hopelessly in love with Roxane (even though she was his cousin) but decides anyway to sacrifice his love (and later his life) to help Christian.
“I know that he’s imagining her when talking to me, but… these are my words. He’s falling for me”– Sierra
In The half of it, Cyrano is obviously the nerdy and awkward Ellie Chu. She’s smart and witty but also afraid and cynical.
Her character puts an interesting spin on the classic trope: all the Cyranos that came before her were either a guy falling for a girl or a girl falling for a guy, in other words, straight.
Ellie is clearly crushing on Aster from the beginning of the movie (with all that staring and stuff…) but she’s afraid to make a move because of the prejudice and discrimination that she would have to face in her religious and conservative hometown.
And I have to say that before watching The half of it I never thought about how fitting the Cyrano love story was for queer romance.
Ellie definitely has the “selfless” quality that made the original Cyrano a compelling character. She writes the first letters to Aster because she needs money, but as the story goes on she refuses to be paid and genuinely wants Paul and Aster to be together, even if she’s unhappy.
In Sierra Burgess is a loser identifying the Cyrano is a bit complicated.
On one hand, we have a charming and smart person who writes pretending to be someone else (Sierra); but on the other hand, we have the selfless person who helps a hopeless friend get their love interest (Veronica).
This movie gives a different take on the story: while in the original Christian needed intelligence to get the girl, in this modern version Sierra needs beauty to get the guy. And while this seems like a good premise on paper, it’s not executed very well in the final product.
First of all, while Sierra is witty and insecure like the protagonist of the play, she misses the selflessness that made him sympathetic to the audience.
She intentionally lies to her love interest over and over again, and she doesn’t do it for the sake of someone else but rather for her own gain.
Meanwhile, Veronica, who should be the equivalent of Christian (good looking and not smart), is the one who acts selflessly.
Just like Ellie, Veronica accepts to do what Sierra asks because she has something to get out of their pact. But then, just like Ellie, she keeps helping because she wants her friend to be happy.
This is the “dumb” character of the story. He’s usually good looking, but not charming at all and couldn’t get the love interest without being helped by someone else. In the original play, he chooses to tell the truth, giving Cyrano the credit he deserves.
“If love isn’t the effort you put it, then what is it?”– Ellie talking to Paul
The half of it follows the classic Cyrano love story formula by making Paul (the Christian character) the one who is… well “not good with words”. Paul and Christian actually have one important thing in common: while they may not be smart, they are complex and genuine people.
Paul manages to show the audience that there is a lot to discover about his character and that cleverness isn’t everything. He genuinely cares for the people around him and helps Ellie to open up. Both Christian and Paul decide to step back for the sake of their friends.
In Sierra Burgess is a loser, Veronica is Christian’s character. They have in common the characteristic of being good looking and “athletically inclined”, but also the fact that they put friendship before love.
Veronica is a more complex character then Sierra and the movie does a really good job of showing how societal pressure can have a negative impact on everyone (even the people who seem to have it all).
There is a big problem, though. In the Cyrano love story, the “Christian character” is supposed to be the heart of the narrative. He/she is the one that gets judged for his appearance and has to suffer because he/she is not living up to the expectations.
Just like in the play, where Roxane falls in “love” with Christian’s good looks without even knowing him, Jamey is initially interested in Veronica because she’s a pretty girl. He even goes one step further a few scenes later when, while talking to his friends, he seems to be surprised that “a pretty girl is smart” (yikes…).
On top of that, Veronica’s character seems to be constantly punished for things that aren’t her fault. While Paul says hurtful things to Ellie when he gets rejected, he also gets rewarded for apologizing and doing the right thing in the end.
Veronica, on the other hand, stops being a mean girl halfway through the movie but still gets humiliated because of a misunderstanding. And instead of getting what she wants, she ends up forgiving Sierra for being a crappy friend after listening to the Deus ex song.
Considering that the Cyrano love story is all about friendship, making one of your characters a terrible friend that still gets everything she wants without even apologizing, is not really a good look.
And we’re finally talking about the love interest. The original Roxane is kind and compassionate, but other than that she doesn’t get much exploration. Despite starting out as a pretty shallow character who falls for a guy she doesn’t know, by the end, she confesses to being in love with the Cyrano’s personality, choosing that over Christian’s looks. In every adaptation, this character has to be absurdly clueless to not be able to catch on with the lie.
“When you’re a pretty girl, and I know it makes me sound conceited, but that’s why you’re even writing me right?”– Aster
The half of it deviates from the classic Cyrano love story by dedicating a lot of time to its Roxane (Aster). So much so that a good 20 minutes of the movie are almost entirely dedicated to the letters where between Aster and Ellie, where we find out more about her personality.
Aster and Roxane have in common a very important thing: being popular. Both girls are admired by their peers but, while Roxane is ok with it, Aster is unhappy. Her popularity brings her more responsibilities than advantages and she expresses her frustration with the pressure to be perfect in her letters.
The biggest difference between Aster and most of the Roxanes that came before her is the fact that the central romance pushes her to change in some aspects of her life (she starts painting again and refuses to marry her boyfriend).
Usually, the Roxane character is there to be admired from afar, they might get a characterization but not development because they are supposed to be already “perfect”. With Aster, however, the “popular girl” image that we see at the beginning is shown to be just a facade.
In Sierra Burgess is a loser, our Roxane is Noah Cent- I mean Jamey. As far as characterization goes, he’s not much different from the original. We’re told that he is a “good jock” who likes sports but not bullies and that he is a good brother, but other than that…
The movie does a good job by showing his insecurities while he’s texting Sierra, which makes him more human and sympathetic. But still, other than changing his mind and forgiving Sierra, he doesn’t have much to do throughout the movie.
Something that all Roxane characters have in common is the convenient stupidity. No matter how smart they are, they have a blind spot for plot conveniences. Aster doesn’t realize that the guy in front of her is not the one texting her and Jamey doesn’t realize that the girl of his dreams keeps changing voice and personality.
To be fair though, both movies don’t dumb them down too much.
Aster seems to suspect that Ellie is the one behind the letters after hearing her talk about painting, and spending the whole day with her seems to be an attempt to “investigate”.
Meanwhile, Jamey has only met Veronica once, and it’s understandable that he wouldn’t suspect to be catfished considering that the girl he saw at the cafe is the one sending him pictures.
With the Cyrano love story things can either go horribly wrong or really really well. At its core, it’s a story about friendship, love, and human connection, but… it’s also a story based on a lie. In the right hands, it’s a heartwarming tale of friendship; in the wrong hands, it’s a justification for catfishing.
Christian and Cyrano are both willing to put their feelings aside for the sake of their friendship. Roxane realizes that love isn’t all about looks. And everyone dies at the end (just kidding Roxane doesn’t die… the other two do though).
The half of it does a perfect job by showing the audience the moral of the story about friendship and love. It takes an old trope and creates a heartwarming story that even tackles important social issues.
The movie uses Ellie’s ghostwriting and Aster’s indecisiveness as a metaphor for the struggles of queer teenagers who are afraid to express themselves for fear of being judged. While Paul demonstrates that you don’t have to be a genius to be an amazing person.
Sierra Burgess is a loser starts off strong with the way it shows how every teenager (no matter the gender, size, or social status) has problems and insecurities.
Unfortunately, it loses itself in its own convoluted plot, making Sierra look less like a teenager looking for love and more like an evil mastermind who’s too quick to judge and likes to exploit others’ insecurities.
Also, the movie at times stops dead so that Sierra can have a monologue about how unfair it is that some people are good looking and others are not. This doesn’t really help the movie pass the message across, it actually makes the whole thing seem preachy.
So The half of it takes the cake for using the Cyrano love story trope at its full potential.