the half of it (2020)
Manila, 2 May—Where to start with Alice Wu’s new movie “The Half of It” that just got released on Netflix?
Warning: Spoilers abound after trailer.
Repeating the spoiler warning again here.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way:
So it’s been a decade and a half since Alice Wu last made a movie—Saving Face—and this was definitely worth the wait.
The movie begins with an animation about Plato’s Origin of Love, narrated by our lead character Ellie Chu (played by Leah Lewis), who says it from the get-go: This is not a love story.
And it isn’t—not technically. Set in the small town of Squahamish, the movie follows Chinese-American student Ellie, who gets by writing essays for her classmates for money (a business model I regret missing in high school, tbh). Life is slow in the small town; Ellie lives with her father, the town’s station master, in a quiet apartment by the train station. She bikes to and from school, and one day, she gets an unusual writing request from popular jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer)—he wants Ellie to write a love letter.
Ellie, more used to writing English essays (Six different takes on Plato, her teacher tells her once, amused. Why don’t you ever turn me in? Ellie challenges. And what, suffer through their actual writing? Bless this interaction) declines Paul’s offer at first, before finally agreeing: You want a love letter? I’ll write you a love letter.
The intended recipient: Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), daughter of the school deacon and girlfriend of their high school’s richest dude. Incidentally, Ellie also has a crush on her.
At this point, we all immediately root for the proverbial tulay—Ellie who writes the letters, who talks about love and books and art, who challenges Aster to be bold and collaborates with her thru vandalism (lol), etc. At this point, we hunker down to prepare for a movie where Ellie eventually gets the girl, just by sheer power of words (ah, don’t we all).
But this is not the movie that Alice Wu has written. Instead, the movie unfolds into one about Ellie and Paul’s very nuanced and beautifully crafted friendship. Ellie, who is struggling to belong in their town as a queer immigrant who is only in her high school classmates’ radar as a business transaction; and Paul, otherwise popular as a star player on their football team, struggling to express himself and find words for a feeling.
I liked Paul, because he’s a trier. And I think the movie did a great job at exploring and developing his relationship with Ellie, and how he eventually comes to very important epiphanies about love, affection and friendship.
Of course, this comes at a price. Because this was the direction that the film took, Aster’s character had to take a backseat. Admittedly, we do not “see” much of her; much of her personality during the first part of the movie was revealed through letters. We see her during her disastrous dates with Paul, but we don’t really learn much about her here either, other than how adorable she looks when confused.
Aster only becomes a solid character sometime toward the end of the movie, and it’s like—you know that feeling when you’re writing or reading something and things are falling into place so smoothly, it’s like you can identify the exact moment that a certain piece has finally gotten its groove?
To me, in this movie, it starts with Aster asking Ellie, You want to get out of here? right after Ellie comments on the painting Aster planned on giving to Paul.
I think this image once formed the core of the story: Two girls in a small pond, sharing a secret place. The whole car ride (to Sharon Van Etten’s “Seventeen!”! My poor gay heart) and the walk into the woods, in my head I was like, Please be a lake, please be a lake, please be a lake—and oh.
Oh. (Maybe it’s not a lake but a hot spring, but no matter—a small body of water in the middle of a forest! God, lesbians.) This scene hit me like a ten-year-old ache: It’s a familiar riff from Skins. Ellie turns around the moment Aster strips and dips into the water, asking, Are these deciduous trees? Oh god Ellie makes me feel so seen.
Ellie of course refuses to get naked in the water. (It prompts Aster to ask, Is that extra long underwear? To which Ellie replies, I am a Russian doll of clothing! Her comedic timing is fantastic.) Aster is happy not talking about boys for once, and is content just pondering the mysteries of gravity and the universe and loneliness with Ellie, who is unlike any of her other (vapid blonde) friends in school, and most certainly very unlike her self-obsessed boyfriend Trig.
The movie’s most poignant shot is from this interlude: It shows the two of them afloat, heads side by side, just staring at the sky.
It plays like a dream, which is probably what’s disappointing about it. They go back and Aster ends up kissing Paul, despite getting a measly, It’s pretty comment for her painting.
There are points of it that I do not get—and I’m willing to chalk it up to high school hormones. Like: Why did Paul want to kiss Ellie after the game?? Why did he go looking for her and not for Aster?? Why does Trig feel like Ellie has a crush on him?? What was he doing outside their house?? God, boys are just—they speak a foreign language sometimes.
The entire church scene is also a bit confusing—but I do understand the nod back to a similar scene in Saving Face, where Wil crashes her mom’s wedding and exposes her and encourages her to stand up for love in this grand speech. I loved it, and the reveal too.
The version of it in The Half of It? Not so much. Ellie’s “Love is Messy” speech is not as eloquent as I expected it to be, considering how she’d been so great with her letters (maybe a case of better read than heard?). Also, there were so many things happening: Trig’s proposal, Ellie’s outburst, Paul’s confession, and Aster’s confusion right in the middle of it all.
I really wish they’d played the Ellie and Aster friendship a bit longer for this reveal to really hurt. I’m not sure I’m entirely sold on Aster’s emotional investment in physical!Paul, given how underwhelming he has been in person, and the realization on her face when she turns to Ellie with a curt You? just did not have enough physical foundation for it to feel so much of a betrayal.
But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe the point here is Paul coming to terms with love as a multi-faceted feeling with many expressions and permutations, and Ellie coming to terms with that, too. Maybe the point is that our two protagonists are finally arriving at their own epiphanies.
Anyway, afterwards: The cleanup with Aster feels rather rushed but lovely in its own way: Ellie seeks her out and asks her about her plans, post-high school. Aster is annoyed, aloof, but not entirely unamused nor uninterested. When Ellie challenges her, she rises up to it; I do think she enjoys being challenged, as well as the smart, if slightly flirty banter (who doesn’t?!) Ellie is about to bike away when she suddenly stops, exasperated. The frame shifts to Aster, who is waiting for something—and it turns out to be Ellie, who’s rushing back into the frame for a kiss.
It doesn’t have to mean anything—it could be a beginning, it could be an end. Aster, after, has an amused smile on her face. She looks like she knows exactly what it was.
Depending on where you are watching this right now, you might look at it differently, but for me it looks like this one thing: An open door.
(And I do love my open, happy endings for what they mean: A playground of derivative works in the weeks and weeks to come. I can’t wait.)
Watch The Half of It on Netflix: Here
This review from the New York Times
Leah Lewis’ interview with Teen Vogue
This review from Rolling Stone
This review from TIME magazine, which calls the movie ‘sweet, funny and raw as a scraped knee’—it’s exactly what it was.
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