Alice Wu’s The Half of It is one of my favorite movies of the year. A teenage romantic comedy about yearning for understanding and completion. She understands her characters are teenagers. They don’t want love as we understand it as adults but as a salve for their weary souls.
Wu’s characters are not molded in the image of John Hughes but in the image of themselves. They make pop culture references but the references stem from books and movies we believe them to have actually read or seen. It helps that Wu often shows us the characters reading or watching the things they reference. By doing this she lends an air of verisimilitude to the way they express themselves.
Ellie (Leah Lewis), the lone Chinese girl in the small town of Squahamish, is an intelligent and shy loner. She reads Sartre and watches old black and white movies with her widowed father Edwin (Collin Chou). Paul (Daniel Diemer) is a second-string football player who seems terrified with the very notion of expressing himself in any way at all. Ellie has a way with words but is afraid to do much except observe and Paul only knows action but has no way of expressing his thoughts or feelings.
All of this may not sound all that amazing but just because something is well worn does not make it less effective. Indeed, the very plot of The Half of It has been done so many times in so many ways, most of them bad, that the fact it pulls it off at all, is enough to recommend it.
Wu’s story is inspired by “Cyrano de Bergerac”. It’s an infamous French play by Edmond Rostand about a shy man with a big nose who loves a woman he is convinced would never return his affections. As fate would have it another man is in love with the woman but cannot find the way to express himself and so he enlists Cyrano’s help to woo her. It is a story that has been done to death.
Ellie writes papers for other students and seems to make a good amount of money in doing so. Her English teacher played by Becky Ann Baker even jokes about how happy she is that Ellie writes the papers and not the students. She bemoans the possible horrors of being forced to read the papers if the students had written them.
So, when Paul approaches Ellie to write a love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), I found it the most believable out of the countless other versions of the story I’d seen. Luckily for us, Wu is smart and understands why so many adaptations have failed. You either embrace the romantic fatalism of the story or eschew it entirely. Steve Martin’s Roxanne being an example of a movie that managed to make the premise work if only because Martin infused the story with a surrealistic whimsy and wit that made the story feel alive and fresh.
Wu goes in the opposite direction. The Half of It, while not gritty, is about people we know and understand because we recognize them as people we’ve either seen throughout our lives or in the mirror every morning. On top of that, she presents us with the rare love triangle in which no one person is more deserving than the other.
Often love triangles are lopsided, designed so the audience is rooting for the “right” couple. Despite The Half of It being a teenage romance film it muddies the water and gives us three likable characters. The result is we find ourselves rooting for all of them, living and dying with their victories and losses.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Ellie is in love with Aster. One of the many joys of The Half of It is watching when each character figures this out, Ellie included. This is Wu’s second film, her first being Saving Face, a lesbian romantic comedy. Much like The Half of It the characters feel lived in and recognizable.
Saving Face is a movie known for its all too rare happy ending for its queer characters. In the 16 years since her debut, Wu has been quietly living her life and taking care of her sick mother. I mention this because of The Half of It, while unabashedly being about a young queer woman in a small town coming to terms with her own queerness, also finds itself interrogating the idea of a happy ending.
Ellie even tells us at the beginning, “In case you haven’t guessed, this isn’t a love story. Or at least not one where anyone gets what they want.” The ending of The Half of It isn’t depressing or even tragic but Ellie’s words are no less true. I mentioned Alice Wu’s previous movie and its legacy of a happy ending because like it or not when it comes to LGBT relationships, we are STILL, in the 21st century, woefully behind the times.
The Half of It looks at friendship and the fluidity of sexuality with tenderness and honesty. Paul loves Aster. Ellie loves Aster. Aster loves-well she doesn’t know. One of the issues with the Cyrano love triangle is the object of affection is oftentimes ignored. Here though, Wu allows Lemire’s Aster room to breathe.
Paul and Ellie know what they want. But Aster does not. Her indecision and self-discovery are allowed to wind and bend in the same way Paul’s and Ellie’s are. Aster is practically engaged to Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz), the star quarterback, and whose family owns half of Squahamish. But she’s not happy until she starts getting Ellie’s letters.
Through these letters, both girls begin to feel less alone and find a connection. Ellie’s attempt to help Paul, at first, is an attempt to explore her own feelings, and finally, get to talk to her crush. A lesser film would have kept it at that but Wu is too interested in her characters.
Paul and Ellie’s relationship begins to blossom in a surprisingly tender fashion which never feels forced. Diemer never plays Paul as dumb merely lost and not as used to processing his emotions. Paul is a nice guy who is so nervous and awkward he has trouble giving voice to his feelings and thoughts.
Because Wu’s characters interrogate the world around them through their own distinct prisms their views are informed by them. Paul’s family runs a local diner. He’s terrified to introduce a new dish, the “taco sausage” to his mother. This is how he explains his interpretation of Camus’ “No Exit”. Camus, as it turns out, is required before his first date with Aster.
Moments like these are why I adore The Half of It. It gives us glimpses into the minds of characters that are normally merely caricatures. So often movies about teenagers have them talk like writers think teenagers talk as opposed to how they actually communicate.
One scene has Aster and Ellie soaking in a hot spring. The scene is intimate not just because Ellie and Aster are practically naked together alone in the woods, but because Aster bares her soul to Ellie. Not realizing Ellie is the voice behind the words who have given her so much comfort, she confides her inner fears and longings.
Teenagers rarely discuss spiritual beliefs in films, much less teenage girls. After learning Ellie is an atheist, Aster confesses she envies her. “Everything must be so simple.” Ellie disagrees. The beauty of the moment comes from the two seeing a pang of sadness in the other they had not seen before and having it connect them.
I feel I have made The Half of It seem dour when it is in fact a charming and funny film. Paul’s bumbling attempts to give voice to a coherent thought and Aster’s biting wit keeps Wu’s film from being bogged down in melodrama. Even when the truth comes out it’s played with a comic lightness underpinned by a realism by the awareness of the risks being taken.
Greta Zozula’s camera allows for the characters to breathe and talk while also subtly using settings to empathize with a character’s emotional state. The scene with Aster and Ellie in the hot springs is a languid moment of peace for two characters who have been in desperate search of calm only to find it in each other.
Zozula’s camera often frames Ellie and Aster alone or off to the side. She does so for Paul as well. She and Wu do this to help drive home the feeling of isolation and loneliness the trio feel. Yet, Wu and Zozula never let the film become overwrought or depressive. Instead, the film is both impactful and delightful at the same time.
The Half of It is akin to a cinematic hug. It’s the rare teen rom-com that dares to show more than one way to love. That in of itself would set it apart, but that it’s populated by such fleshed out and thoughtful characters put it ahead of the pack.