Many films know how to kick things off right, but few manage to stay that way. The Netflix film, The Half of It, declares its intentions straightaway with a quick summary of how the ancient Greeks viewed love, which was as a search for a literal other half that was torn away due to the gods’ fear of what humanity would become if kept whole. If anyone did manage to discover this mythic missing piece, there was supposedly no greater joy. “Of course, the ancient Greeks never went to high school” muses our heroine Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) with all the jadedness of a teenager.
Yes, Ellie is yet another teen with a cynical outlook on love, but her grimmer perspective is more earned than most. Some of it is due to obstacles that have likewise become familiar, such as a deceased mother, her father’s resulting depression, and a small town that constantly reminds Ellie of her outsider status. Others are less so, such as racism and actual financial problems. Ellie has managed to solve some of her money worries by writing her classmates’ essays in exchange for a small fee, and it is this very adult concern that sets the plot of The Half of It in motion. In spite of her chosen hustle, Ellie still has a moral code, and she initially balks when jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) asks her to write a love letter to his crush Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) on his behalf. But Paul also willing to pay more than her usual rate just as Ellie discovers her power will be shut off if she can’t scrape together a mere $50.
It’s heavier stuff for a film that takes inspiration from Cyrano de Bergerac, and perhaps also from 500 Days of Summer in its warning to us. But where 500 Days cautioned us against believing we’re about to watch a love story, The Half of It has a disclaimer that’s simultaneously more optimistic and tragic. In spite of Ellie’s protestations. The Half of It is still a love story through and through, but it’s not going to be one where, as Ellie warns, “anyone gets what they want.” Why would they, when the lies continue longer than they should, even in spite of all evidence of Aster and Ellie’s chemistry and growing connection, a seamless meeting of minds as well as passions. So swoonworthy is their budding romance that Ellie encourages Aster’s painting aspirations by remotely collaborating on a beautiful piece of graffiti art, and later confirms their mutually repressed desires when the two take a dip in a hot spring.
As if it’s isn’t enough to have such an intelligent pairing that includes odes to Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, and references to Sartre, Camus, and even Powell’s Books, there’s also another tender platonic love story in the growing friendship between Ellie and Paul, who could’ve easily come off as a dumb jock stereotype if he weren’t so tenderly written and played with sweet intensity by Diemer. It’s emotional intelligence without a hint of the saccharine, which has already become something of a signature for Alice Wu, in spite of having directed only one other film, the groundbreaking 2004 lesbian rom-com Saving Face. It probably also explains why The Half of It is so packed with such a range of creative inspirations, and how compassionate Wu is to everyone in her latest love story, even when they may not deserve it.
Paul becomes a caring friend to Ellie, but when he discovers that she also has feelings for Aster, he lashes out in a way that’s been enabled in a town where their preacher warns of Satan’s looming influence. Ellie is understanding in a way people of color often must be while navigating all-white spaces, where she is constantly referred to as the “Chinese girl,” among other microaggressions. She and her friends are always recognizable teens in spite of their various levels of intelligence, interests, and flaws. Alexxis Lemire achieves what is probably the most difficult balancing act, ensuring that Aster could believably inspire this much devotion without devolving into an impossibly angelic teenage dream. How their love triangle managed to remain a secret in such a small town until the the unavoidable climax is a question that’s never answered. Ah well, hopefully we don’t have to wait 15 years before Alice Wu’s next film, which will hopefully be another exploration of the many ways love can enrich our lives.