THE HALF OF IT (NETFLIX) (2020)
SYNOPSIS: Shy, straight-A student Ellie is hired by sweet but inarticulate jock Paul, who needs help winning over a popular girl. But their new and unlikely friendship gets complicated when Ellie discovers she has feelings for the same girl.
To label writer-director Alice Wu’s ‘The Half of It’ as a rom-com is doing it an enormous disservice; while it does centre around boy-girl relationships, it is ultimately so, so much more than just a romance, or a comedy for that matter.
Wu may have been absent from directing for the past 15 years, but those who have seen her directorial debut ‘Saving Face’ will probably still remember it indelibly. Not only was it one of the very few films to explore the queer Asian-American experience, it did so with such rare tenderness, warmth and sensitivity. Many years later, Wu’s sophomore film possesses these same qualities, but also clarity and maturity that probably comes with age.
To be sure, the characters in this movie are much younger. Its heroine is the bookish Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), who is juggling the loneliness of adolescence growing up in the Pacific Northwest-flavored town of Squahamish. Now in her senior year at high school, Ellie is grappling with the choice of staying behind to care for her widowed father (Collin Chou) or seizing the opportunity of going to the renowned liberal arts Grinnell College; certainly, she is not short of the talent or the recognition for it, seeing as how she writes term papers for her classmate with the full knowledge of her English Literature teacher (Becky Ann Baker), who would rather read her six essays on Plato than endure five other substandard pieces.
Her cottage industry attracts the attention of the dim-bulb football player Paul (Daniel Diemer), who offers to pay her to ghost-write letters to the object of his affection, Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie initially refuses, but after a one-to-one awkward encounter with Aster as well as a reminder of the bills her father needs to pay, accepts the proposition. One letter becomes another; pretty soon, Ellie goes as far as to help Paul reply her texts and prepare him for their dinner dates together at some secluded diner (so that neither Aster’s self-absorbed quarterback boyfriend Trig (played by “Sierra Burgess” alum Wolfgang Novogratz) or her religiously devout family will notice).
Long before Paul realises it, it is clear to us that Ellie is doing it because she is secretly attracted to Aster. Over personal reflections and literary sharings, Ellie’s feelings for Aster deepen, while Aster tries to reconcile the incongruity between the guy in front of her during their dates and that behind the messages. To make things more complicated, Paul starts to develop feelings for Ellie, putting to proof that love isn’t just about whoever looks pretty or even finding the perfect other half.
There is genuine compassion in how Wu treats each of her characters, especially their feelings, longings and insecurities. Ellie has feelings for Aster, longs for companionship, but is unsure of how any relationship with Aster can work. Paul had feelings for Aster, realised they were ephemeral when he longed for Ellie, but doesn’t quite know how to confess to them or react later on when he finds out Ellie is queer. And last but not least, Aster has feelings for the one who has been texting her, longs for something more than a married life with Trig, but isn’t yet sure of whether she is bold enough to give up her commitments to family and religion.
Amidst the honest feelings and sharp dialogue, there are intriguing issues of identity – ethnic (Ellie being a victim of casual racism in the town), gender, sexual, socio-economic (the Chus moved to America with the hope of a better life, now dashed) and religious (‘It’s a sin,’ Paul says, after finding out about Ellie’s attraction towards Aster). Wu handles each of these without the slightest hint of condescension, which makes the film even more poignant and thoughtful.
But more than the film’s construct itself, Wu injects her movie with such delicacy of feeling that you’ll embrace it many times over. We’re not just referring to the periodic chapter breaks, delineated by musings on the nature of love by Oscar Wilde and Jean Paul Satre among others; and it isn’t also just about the way Wu embellishes the screen with words, pictures and text messages. Rather, it is about the intimate moments her characters share, be it over games of ping pong, movie dinners between Ellie and Paul and Ellie’s dad, or a dip in a local hot spring with Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’ playing on an old-school radio.
It is also to the credit of the actors that their characters are so endearing. Behind owlish-glasses, a standoffish gaze and a uniform of sweats and jeans, Lewis seamlessly inhabits a character full of conflicting emotions. Diemer is full of goofy charm and even surprising sweetness, and Lemire is absolutely luminous as the centre of attraction who refuses to be typecast as just a pretty face. Just as she did with ‘Saving Face’, Wu gives her actors plenty of space to shine, and they reward her generosity fabulously.
We dare say that ‘The Half of It’ is the most we have enjoyed and loved about a Netflix offering for some time. It is tender and thoughtful, sweet and smart, and astute and adorable. Wu has indeed grown as a filmmaker in the years since her memorable debut, and we especially love how she eschews the sort of resolutions we have come to expect in favour of one that is true to how ‘love is messy and horrible and selfish… and bold’, emphasis here on bold.
Review by Gabriel Chong