As an avid watcher of Netflix teen rom-coms, I often find that the rowdy high school parties and steamy make-out scenes get a bit repetitive, not to mention the budding romance that almost always implies the same love motifs. Joining the extensive list is Alice Wu’s “The Half of It” that — while still falling into the romantic comedy category — transcends the typical plot of other movies in the genre.
Before you continue reading, be aware that there are some major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go watch it and continue reading after you’re done!
The series follows shy outcast Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) who runs a small business writing essays for her high school classmates despite their racist taunts on her daily bike rides to and from school. Her widowed father Edwin Chu (Collin Chou) has a Ph.D. in engineering from China but works as a train station master since he doesn’t speak much English. Ellie’s English teacher Mrs. Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker) attempts to persuade her to apply for colleges outside her (fictional) hometown of Squahamish, but Ellie feels guilty leaving her father behind. One day, on her bike ride home from school, gawky football player Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) approaches her, asking for an unusual favor — to use Ellie’s exceptional writing skills to compose a love letter to his crush Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) with hopes of impressing her. Viewers might initially predict a budding romance between Ellie and Paul and may be surprised to find out that Ellie ends up falling in love with Aster in the midst of her letter writing and posed text messages. Despite her secret feelings for Aster due to her closeted sexuality, Ellie and Paul develop an unexpected friendship.
Wu’s characters appear to be your average awkward, lonely teens but are given much depth and complexity while struggling to find their identities. At the start, Ellie is friendless and spends most of her time ghostwriting homework papers and watching old American movies with her dad. It is later revealed that she is not only Chinese-American, but is also a lesbian living in a predominately white town with a heavily religious community. When her friendship with Paul emerges while helping him win Aster, she learns to care for others besides herself and her father. By the end of the movie, she no longer closes herself off, but rather opens up to Paul emotionally.
Aster’s beauty helps her fit into the crowd at school, but after the movie reveals more character development, it appears that she sees herself as an outcast. Although she is popular and even has a boyfriend named Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz), whom she is expected to marry and start a family with, she secretly desires to attend art school displaying her conflict between having an average life but wanting so much more. “I’m like a lot of people,” she tells Ellie at one point, “which makes me no one.”
Paul’s character progresses from just a high school jock to an attentive listener who develops a deeper understanding for others. He chases off Ellie’s bullies, cooks for her and her father, and encourages her to sing in the school talent show. In a pivotal scene where Paul discovers Ellie’s feelings for Aster, he calls her sexuality a sin. He later realizes the harm he caused and educates himself about the queer community.
Wu tackles the meaning of love by going beyond its romantic form. The story seems to focus heavily on Paul and Ellie’s friendship, rather than delving into either of their uncertain relationships with Aster. Considering their differences — Ellie being the poetic girl she is and Paul who is barely able to craft a complete sentence — it was a nice change to see two people on completely different tiers of high school social hierarchy form such a tight bond despite all odds. When the two reveal to Aster that Ellie is the writer behind the love letters, Ellie reflects on the search for love. She says, “love is patient and kind and humble” and that “it’s not finding your perfect half. It’s the trying and the reaching and failing.” Both Ellie and Paul most certainly tried and reached and failed, considering they don’t end up with what they initially want. Instead, they gain something much greater than they had expected.
“The Half of It” gives us something fresh but also familiar. It remains realistic by ditching the romance and speaks to a larger audience by revealing the characters’ internal struggles. Most importantly, this film conveys an original message about love — it is not about the perfect half we hope to find, but rather, our attempt at searching for it.
Jacqui Pash is an Entertainment Intern for the 2020 spring quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.