Love stories, like people, come in all manner of shapes, sizes, and details. You might not know that from the majority of romantic comedies and YA romances that saddle similar-looking lovebirds with familiar hurdles en route to an inevitable union, but love is a challenging, multi-faceted endeavor for most people… and it isn’t always about the romance. The Half of It understands that and tells a story about the love between family members, friends, and the more romantically inclined.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is the lone Chinese student at her high school, and her father might just be the only other Chinese person in their small American town of Squahamish, WA. She’s a smart teen who makes extra cash on the side writing papers for fellow students, but that’s not her only secret. Ellie’s also pining for one of her more popular classmates, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), who’s in a relationship with a stud named Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz). It’s a misery Ellie keeps to herself, but it’s challenged when another classmate, Paul (Daniel Diemer), reveals that not only is he also enamored by Aster’s charms — but that he wants to pay Ellie to write her love letters.
Director/writer Alice Wu — finally returning to the screen with her sophomore film a full sixteen years after releasing the acclaimed Saving Face (2004) — crafts a teenage riff on Cyrano de Bergerac and changes up more than just the presence of a comically large nose. Ellie’s unavoidably stand-out feature is her Chinese ethnicity in an almost exclusively white town, and her quest for love is additionally challenged as a gay girl in a fairly conservative community. Wu saddles her film’s hero further by adding a widowed father who Ellie can’t bring herself to leave even as one of her teachers (Becky Ann Baker, in a brief but terrific performance reminding of the best teachers from our own school days) encourages her towards applying to a college outside of town. The Half of It becomes a love triangle of sorts with added depths throughout, and the end result is one of the smartest, warmest, and most affecting YA films in years.
“In case you haven’t guessed, this is not a love story,” says Ellie in voice-over. “At least not one where anyone gets what they want.” Ellie loves Aster, Paul loves Aster, and Aster is still a work in progress, and while other threads exist this grouping remains the focus. Love is messy, and no one is ever guaranteed a happy ending, but through beats both humorous and human we can’t help but root for characters even knowing their goals are often in competition with each other.
Ellie makes do as the town’s sole Chinese teen, and while she’s never bullied with cruelty in mind the small acts of harassment are still present. Wu finds ways to spin it positively, though, including a scene where Ellie goes to a classmate’s party and is greeted with the legitimately welcoming yell of “The Chinese girl came!” There’s no sense of artificiality here even as Wu peppers Ellie’s daily life with atypical pop culture references including movies (from Wings of Desire to His Girl Friday), music (from artists like Gordon Lightfoot and Chicago), and even philosophers (from Camus to Plato). Most teens don’t necessarily know what they’re missing, but Ellie’s smart enough and hurting just a little bit more because of it, and Lewis delivers a compellingly aware performance balancing confidence and pain to recognizable perfection.
Wu’s commitment to her characters extends beyond just Ellie as both Aster and Paul feel well-rounded and real in their desires, efforts, and confusion. Aster starts falling for the person at the other end of the letters (and later over an anonymous texting app), and it’s enough to see her challenge her own current situation. She’s the pastor’s daughter and expected to marry the popular Trig — the only character here who feels a bit cliche and one-note — and start a family of her own, but that might not be what she wants. “I’m like a lot of people,” she tells Ellie at one point, “which makes me no one.” Paul is a dim-witted football player, but his pursuit of Aster and time spent with Ellie see him growing too as his own interests and efforts change for the better. He reads books, he tries harder, and some of the film’s tremendous warmth comes through in frequently silent scenes of Paul bonding over food with Ellie’s father. Each of them are beautiful in different ways and through their varied relationships.
As much of the film is fueled by the pursuit of romantic love, The Half of It champions something that’s every bit as important — the platonic love of great friends. It’s not something we see much of in otherwise great romantic comedies — My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) might be the last one to truly get it right — and Wu’s film nails its intricacies and pitfalls alike. The three navigate tricky waters involving transactions, deceit, and make it or break it moments, but the journey proves every bit as important as the destination.
The Half of It has quite a bit more on its mind than the expected teenage love story including its friendships, its ideas about self-confidence, and even the struggle that Ellie’s father faces when it comes to letting go of his daughter. The film even touches on faith and religious congregations, and while it teases a restrictive, close-minded reality it also allows Ellie to reveal just how lonely it is being a loner who doesn’t believe in god. There’s no one way to live a life, no singular motivation or type of person to love, and the film knows that knowledge comes with broken hearts and shattered dreams — but it also knows that’s no reason to stop loving or stop dreaming.