A refreshing take on an old trope
'The Half of It' is a film with the temperament of its protagonist
- Published 12.05.20, 1:54 AM
- Updated 12.05.20, 1:54 AM
- 3 mins read
When Alice Wu quit her corporate job to pursue film-making, she perhaps unknowingly decided to serve a purpose — that of amplifying the voices of Chinese immigrants and their struggles. After her film Saving Face in 2004, Wu is now back with a Netflix Original film that she has written, directed and produced — The Half of It, narrating the story of a Chinese-American girl Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis). A refreshing take on a familiar trope is always known to garner extreme attention and this film manages to take you on a soulful, positive ride.
When a movie for young adults supposedly about high-school romance begins with a quote by Plato on the quest for love, one does realise the said ride would definitely be different. Ellie is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant with a PhD in engineering, who is reduced to being a station manager in a small and uninspiring town of Squahamish, where conformity is key. Her late mother was the light and life of this family that is now reduced to sitting silently in front of the TV playing old English classics, to help improve her father’s language. To make ends meet, Ellie runs a stealthy business of writing essays for other kids of her class, much to the amusement of her feisty English teacher (Becky Ann Baker) who is in on the secret but would rather read six brilliantly crafted viewpoints by the same student than work through the drivel her students would otherwise submit.
However, when a tongue-tied jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) approaches Ellie with a writing assignment in the form of a half-baked love letter to the popular and beautiful Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), she isn’t keen. A letter is personal, she reasons, when in reality, the added reason beyond morals is her undeniable attraction and intrigue towards Aster herself. Ellie warns us that this isn’t a film with a happy ending right when it takes off, but somehow you still end up rooting for them. Because here is a story that beautifully sweeps over sexual fluidity to finally rest on a friendship that is more important than any other romantic allusion that fuels movies of this genre. Ellie, in her standoff-ish gaze from behind nerdy glasses and baggy jeans, pours herself completely into the letters she writes for Paul, often getting territorial and possessive about the state of the romance that she is helping orchestrate.
Lemire’s Aster is beautiful in her confusion and her barely-dawning knowledge of her bisexual identity and the scene of Aster and Ellie bonding inside a secret cove, taking a bath in a small pool, is one that stays well with the audience after the movie ends. It is the friendship between Paul and Ellie that makes one want to reach out for its simple purity. It is Paul who fights off Ellie’s roadside tormentor of classmates hurling racial slurs at her daily and it is he who carries her inebriated self back to his bedroom, staying awake all night to keep a watch. So when Paul mistakes their friendship for something romantic and is thwarted, he finally understands that he and Ellie share their object of romantic interest in Aster. The ever-conforming, good Christian boy that Paul is, he is unable to understand this attraction. “It’s a sin and you are going to hell,” he tells her.
The Half of It is a film with the temperament of its protagonist. She is an introvert who doesn’t shy away from having a good time at a party. She is confused but mature for her age, taking care of her father who seems to be failing at certain filial duties. She is well-read and funny with a deep sense of compassion for everyone around, hidden behind snarky comments. That is exactly how the movie feels, too, in its humorous and lilting tone. By the time one is done with the film, the entire spectrum of subtle emotions have been felt. Streaming on Netflix from May 1, this film makes one wish such storylines existed when we were 16 years old. If only to acquire the ability to process contrasting emotions together.