"If love isn't the eFfort you put in, then what is it?"
This coming of age story of friendship directed by Alice Wu (Saving Face) is anything but your typical teenage dramady. The Half of It is about a shy straight-A student Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), who makes money writing papers for other students. She’s lonely and lives with her father in the fictional small town of Squahamish since the death of her mother. When their electric bill is overdue, Ellie agrees to assist Paul Munsky, a sweet but inarticulate football player, in writing a letter to Aster Flores, a girl that they both secretly love, in exchange for payment.
What began as a one-time deal becomes much more than that. Ellie forms an unlikely friendship with Paul (Daniel Diemer) and finds that it becomes more complicated with every letter and text message she sends to Aster (Alexxis Lemire) on his behalf. The film’s three main characters Ellie, Paul, and Aster, go through unique journeys of self-discovery while coming to terms with their feelings about friendship, love, and connection.
When I first saw the trailer for The Half of It, I was delighted by the premise and excited to see another film made by Alice Wu. We’ve seen “nerdy girl helps jock get popular girl” before, but the new twist of “by the way she likes her too” was so much fun to me. Additionally, the concept of Ellie writing as Paul to earn the affections of Aster is like the gay modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, I didn’t know I needed. As much as the gay plotline attracted me, I was really drawn into the dynamic of these characters and the realistic small-town setting. After all, who doesn’t love a wholesome friendship between a jock with a heart of gold and a nerdy lesbian? Who didn’t have a secret crush on another girl, which resulted in a rivalry for that girl’s affection? That was half of my high school experience.
As a fan of film and literature, I found the references and themes about love to be intertwined into the narrative in a beautiful way. The gorgeous opening animation in which Ellie describes the Greek myth of souls being separated into two halves, which seamlessly flows into an essay she’s writing about Plato’s Symposium, really piqued my interest. Ellie and Aster connect over Remains of the Day, and when posing as Paul via letters or messages, Ellie discusses literature, art, and existential thoughts with Aster.
As the three characters interact with one another directly or indirectly through their growing friendships, they share their respective views on love (which, of course, are limited to what they’ve each experienced or have been taught so far). All that Ellie understands about love, she has read in a book or seen in a film her father watches to practice English. What she experiences challenges those concepts in the same way that she argued from various viewpoints in her forged essays.
The film continually points back to the idea of soulmates and feeling as though you are a half looking for the other. This is not necessarily to make you whole, but because you’re searching for a half that makes you feel understood. In this case, the film makes a point to show that this can be both platonic or romantic through Paul and Aster’s relationships with Ellie. The characters feel understood by each other for different reasons. The images in the opening sequence foreshadow moments in the film, and five quotes about love ranging from Plato and Oscar Wilde to Ellie herself appear on the screen as Ellie’s understanding of love evolves. She goes from quoting other’s ideas of love to quoting herself by the end.
This brings us to the true heart of the film: the friendship between Paul and Ellie. That’s right, kids, they say right at the beginning of the film that this is not a love story. While they vie for the affection of Aster, the two develop a genuine friendship that carries the film. The bond between Ellie and Paul is so wholesome. It shows that friendships can be loving and intimate in their own ways without being romantic or sexual. It is their unexpected relationship that changes both of them profoundly. It also reinforces the idea that we, as human beings, are whole to begin with.
Every person we meet along the way is complete as well, but we are always changing and growing. Every relationship leaves you different than you were before, and platonic love can affect a person just as profoundly as romantic love.
The characters in the film are genuine, the story is realistic, and the ending is hopeful. The Half of It is the purest kind of love story. The point of the film isn’t who ends up with who and why. Instead, the film has a very Hayao Miyazaki-esque feel. It’s a story about three people who all meet and change each other’s lives before ultimately going their separate ways after high school. In their meeting and their shared experiences, they each find something in themselves that they needed to become the people they are meant to be. In fact, the ending of the series acts almost like a beginning.
15 years ago, we needed Saving Face and its happy ending. We needed to know that people like me could get happy endings. Now that we get to see those kinds of stories and characters more often (even though there is still a long way to go), we can have films like The Half of It, which don’t just have to focus on romantic love. We need films that talk about all the different ways a person can love and how important the people are that we meet along the way.
It’s not only important to have LGBTQ stories, but it’s also vital that they are written, directed, or acted by LGBTQ individuals. Films like The Half of It feel authentic because they mirror the LGBTQ experience from the stares and longing, to moments of gay panic, to coming out and potentially not being accepted, to finally loving yourself for who you are. The Half of It is a refreshing change of pace from the same stories we see directed at teens. Although LGBTQ films are more common these days, good LGBTQ films with positive stories are still few and far between, and even fewer have an Asian lead. As far as I’m concerned, Alice Wu can make as many films as she wants and I will always watch them.
I highly suggest that those who are interested in coming of age stories or LGBTQ stories check this film out. It is worth a watch or two. It is a gorgeous and well-crafted film with brilliant references that really enhance the meaning behind the characters and the film. I could probably ramble on for hours about the cinematography and symbolism in The Half of It, but you wouldn’t even know “the half of it.”
5 out of 5 sausage tacos
You can find The Half of It available on Netflix and Saving Face on Amazon Prime.