Alice Wu’s first film, “Saving Grace,” was an innovative piece of LGBTQ filmmaking whose impact was stronger than its box office suggested. Sixteen years later, Wu continues to explore themes of love with her second project, “The Half of It,” a romantic coming-of-age full of charm and thoughtful themes.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives in the small fictional town of Squahamish. She’s a lone teenager that earns some extra cash by doing the homework of her high school classmates. This attracts the attention of Paul Minsky (Daniel Diemer), a clumsy jock that entrusts her with the task of writing a love letter aimed at the woman of his dreams, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). The thing is… Ellie has a big crush on Aster, and the attraction only grows when her written responses mirror Ellie’s philosophies on life.
This is a deceptively simple premise. At first glance, it seems like “The Half of It” will be like many other romantic movies, but each scene reveals a new layer of depth in the story. Even though love is the main subject, Wu skillfully handles themes of identity, religion, race, acceptance, grief, immigration, art and family pressure that, instead of cluttering the plot, help define the main characters in order to create a strong emotional bond with the viewer.
Through an exceptional screenplay, “The Half of It” explores the many shapes love can take, emphasizing mind over physical attraction, throwing some comedy into the mix and creating a world full of subtlety. Wu uses metaphors and movie references to enrich her story, round out her characters and build a moving finale. “The Half of It” rewards you for paying attention.
The Ellie Chu character is a goldmine. She isn’t just a shy teenager with no friends… she’s a Chinese lesbian immigrant trapped in a small religious town. She’s trying to hide her pain and insecurities behind a mask of anger and stiffness. She has so many emotional barriers that, at first, it’s difficult to like her, but her mind is so strong and her words so deep that you end up yearning for her happiness. Big props to Lewis (“Nancy Drew”) who knocked it out of the park with her acting.
An essential part of this story is Paul, who ends up being more than a dumb jock. He’s a sweet and genuine boy with his heart in the right place. Unlike his beloved Aster, he doesn’t know about culture or philosophy, but he’s willing to learn in order to reach his goal. Diemer is phenomenal in the role: His authenticity and charm are off the charts.
While crafting letters and making plans to conquer Aster, Ellie and Paul end up creating a strong bond of friendship that allows for the evolution of both characters. Ellie teaches Paul how to be more sensitive and motivates him to develop his mind with books and art. On the other side, Paul helps Ellie in breaking out of her shell. It’s a beautiful relationship that had me smiling like a fool.
The Ellie-Aster dynamic is electrifying. Their letter exchange has just the right amount of intellectualism, and their dialogues are rousing. The looks and the importance of art reminded me of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and, although “The Half of It” is far from Sciamma’s masterpiece, it does have a hypnotizing subtlety in its discourse. It’s a fascinating film that goes beyond a romance aimed at teenagers.
And there are many more things to discover here. As we get to know Ellie, Paul and Aster, the coming-of-age aspect takes center stage; it’s clear that all three want something more than what their families and their small town are trying to impose on them. Also, look out for the relationship between Ellie and her dad, a depressed Chinese immigrant who can barely speak English and still grieves the death of his wife. It’s not the main focus but, like many things throughout this film, it gives some welcome depth to the main character.
“The Half of It” is more than just a coming-of-age for teenagers; it’s an intelligent and intimate movie that captures the yearning feelings of first love. Alice Wu did a tremendous job creating fascinating characters, getting the most out of her cast and generating an empathetic story that will inspire more than one heart.
“The Half of It” is now streaming on Netflix!
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”