The Half of It is the sophomore film by director Alice Wu, who is known for her previous work with Asian queer films. In an interview with /Film, Wu explains how her inspiration behind the film was love. According to Wu, “... I was trying to explore for myself this idea of love. We all think we want to reach for romantic love and now we’ll be complete. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really realized there’s so many more ways to love than I ever knew.”
Smart and unassuming Ellie Chu, played by Leah Lewis, is the only Asian girl in her small, fictional town of Squahamish, Washington. The 17-year-old lives with her widowed father who, despite having a Ph.D. from China, has given up on his engineering dreams because of his accent. While she is often the target of racist remarks from her classmates, Ellie writes essays for those same students for money. One day, Paul Munksy (Daniel Diemer), a lovable but inarticulate football player, approaches Ellie to ask for help writing a love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), a popular girl at their high school. The two strike a deal: fifty dollars for each letter.
Unbeknownst to Paul, Ellie already has a crush on Aster. She begins to pose as him, writing letters and even sending Aster texts. The two girls begin to bond over their shared love over literature and art. But when Paul and Aster share an incredibly awkward first date, Ellie agrees to teach Paul about Aster’s interests so that he may be able to talk to her in real life. A love triangle ensues – Ellie loves Aster, Paul begins to fall in love with Ellie, and Aster thinks she is falling for Paul, who is actually Ellie in disguise.
The film shines as a love story, not only about romance but also about friendship and self-love. Confined by her responsibilities to her father and ostracized because of her otherness within the town, Ellie is reserved and, well, pretty lonely. Paul is the only person in the whole town who attempts to get to know Ellie and, in doing so, helps her turn into a more confident version of herself as she comes to terms with her sexuality and figures out what more she wants in life.
Paul and Ellie's friendship is a poignant aspect of the film. As they bond over their troubled family lives, they begin to open up to one another. Ellie encourages Paul to pursue his culinary ventures, much to the chagrin of his parents. When Paul finds out Ellie likes Aster, he initially becomes angry, claiming that homosexuality is a sin. But that doesn’t stop him from protecting Ellie in the end. In spite of what he was taught to believe, he realizes that love comes in many forms and nothing could stop him from loving Ellie.
And it is these characters’ love for one another which enables them to break free of their pasts. Ellie, who is too scared to leave her father, decides to attend college out of state. Paul, who is bound to the same path as his family, decides to pursue his dreams. Even Aster, who almost gets married, decides to apply to art school. Ultimately, Wu proves that love is so much more than a feeling. It is our words and our actions. It is in the ways we support and defend each other through hardships. Wu proves that sometimes, platonic love can be even more powerful than romantic.
What I admire about this film is how true the characters stayed to themselves. Ellie doesn't have a sudden personality upheaval when she comes to terms with being queer. When she kisses Aster, Aster doesn't reject the possibility of what might come in time — evidence that she, too, didn’t really know who she was. After all, they are still just high schoolers. In this way, I think the film stayed true to reality. Finding yourself takes a long time. And even when you think you’ve reached a point where you’re content, you find yourself unsure once more.
Furthermore, the film explores queerness in a way that I think is so important. It shows that coming to terms with one’s sexuality doesn’t have to be a character’s only narrative. Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn 99 is a great example of a positive portrayal. She had a plotline for coming out, but she had also had several other plotlines throughout the show that didn’t have anything to do with her sexuality. Her queerness only made her character more dynamic; it didn’t encompass it. Ellie deals with her queerness in a conservative town, but realizing she likes Aster is only part of her story.
The movie isn’t perfect, but neither is love. As Ellie says, “Love is messy, and horrible, and selfish, and bold. It's not finding your perfect half. It's the trying, and reaching, and failing.” Loving someone and finding yourself are important tropes of the coming-of-age genre. Alice Wu reevaluates love and identity to show that sometimes, it is love that sets us free.
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