From the beginning of The Half of It, our protagonist, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), warns us that this is not a love story. Or at least not the kind where everybody gets what they want.
Ellie Chu, a Chinese immigrant and straight-A student, lives with her father in the small fictional town of Squahamish. In between manning the train tracks of the town, she earns extra money by writing papers for classmates. She secretly has her eyes on Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the pretty girl trying to fit in with the popular crowd. Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), the football jock who is convinced he is in love with the same girl, hires Ellie to help him craft a love letter for Aster. Ellie agrees.
Ellie, who migrated with her family to America when she was five, finds kindred with Aster whose family had also recently moved to the town. Ellie writes her own feelings for her through Paul, who goes on the dates with Aster. All the while, Paul starts to develop a friendship with Ellie, still unaware of her crush.
Alice Wu weaves class insecurity, religion, race, and a desire to break free from societal norms in her three main characters. Despite Ellie’s occasional cynicism in love and religion, she yearns to leave Squahamish, but not without worrying about her father. Aster internally struggles with the familial pressure and the need to keep her place in the dominantly white clique she’s been adopted into. Paul, the fourth child in a large family with a sausage business, wants to establish a place in his family and create his own recipes. Wu takes good care of her main characters throughout their own emotional conflicts, balancing it out with humor.
The film touches upon things like racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. After all, it’s impossible to miss these things in a small, predominantly white town like Squahamish. Ellie has gotten used to the racism, preferring to mind her own business. Aster, deemed good enough by her peers because of her conventionally attractive look, struggles with the position she has been bestowed with. It isn’t really a surprise when Aster finds it easy to talk to Ellie in the guise of Paul. How many times have we had to hide just to express what we want to say?
It also takes its time developing Paul and Ellie’s friendship, and we cannot help but wonder if Paul will eventually fall for our lead. He learns about the arts, philosophy, and books from Ellie, while she gains confidence and learns to stand up for herself because of Paul.
While Paul and Ellie’s friendship is fully fleshed, some things are not given enough attention, like Aster. I wish there had been enough screen time to fully explore Aster’s character as a Latina immigrant trying to fit into a white clique and her own family dynamics. It felt like the only thing missing from the film, overall.
The Half of It is a coming-of-age exploration about the discovery and complications of love itself. I may have to disagree with Ellie’s remark about it not being a love story. All coming-of-age films are, in one way or another, a version of a love story—be it their own relationships with themselves or the world around them.
Love is an act constantly written, performed, and consumed. What it boils down to is the essence of connection. These tiny strings we create to reach out to one another in the path towards self-discovery, though small as they seem, have always been the foundation in creating a safe space that we continuously grow from.
Wu shows us the possibilities of exploring different versions of love stories throughout the narrative, subverting Ellie’s initial warning. Yes, it is a love story—in Ellie’s case, a prelude to the possibility of it in more ways than one.
The Half of It is streaming on Netflix.