“In case you haven’t guessed, this is not a love story – at least not one where anyone gets what they want.”
Writer-director Alice Wu establishes that The Half if It is not your textbook YA rom-com in the very beginning through a bittersweet commentary by the film’s awkward yet intelligent protagonist, Ellie Chu. What on the surface seems like yet another chick flick with the overused trope of a love triangle transforms into what might as well be the most literary tragicomedy of our times a few minutes into the film. Wu gathers all the elements of an everyday young adult story and scatters them on-screen in the most unique yet universal way.
In her queer adaptation of the French play Cyrano de Bergerac, Wu tells the story of a Chinese-American queer teenager, a jock with a heart of gold, a new girl who finds herself strangely misplaced at the top of the social ladder, and – most importantly – friendship. This brings us to the key characters. With the introduction of each one, Wu establishes a stereotype and then shatters it spectacularly moments later.
Ellie Chu, at first glance, is shy, nerdy and a victim of bullying, before you watch on and realise that the girl makes a fortune writing essays for her whole class. This, right here, is a real hustler. One of the things I admire about Ellie’s character is how her sexual orientation is never specifically defined throughout the story. There’s no ceremonial ‘coming out’ either. Wu doesn’t reduce Ellie to just her sexuality. The sheer simplicity with which she deals with a queer protagonist goes on to show how there’s so much more to people than whom they’re attracted to.
Aster Flores’s first appearance paints a picture right out of any other high school drama. She is new, she is gorgeous, she’s dating the most popular boy: three things that make you visualise someone perched at the very top of the pedestal. As the story progresses, however, the façade gradually starts to disintegrate, revealing a character that’s extremely flawed and confused. Amazingly enough, these are the traits that make Ellie fall for her harder.
Paul Munsky’s first impression is that of an airheaded jock. However, I’d go so far as to say that with Paul, Wu not only breaks the prejudices that exist around hypermasculine characters but also brings forth the most accurate portrayal of a true ally. While Ellie and Aster undoubtedly undergo a beautiful journey of self-discovery, it’s Paul’s arc that shows the most amount of character development.
The Half of It has managed to become one of my comfort films in a very short span of time. Maybe it’s because of how real and relatable it is or maybe because every time I watch it, I notice something new that makes the whole narrative a tad more bittersweet.
While the three primary characters are extremely fleshed out, Wu doesn’t stop there. From the witty English teacher with a dry sense of humour to Ellie’s immigrant dad still mourning the loss of his late wife, Wu gives such significance to all her characters that you can’t help but feel for them.
The whole premise of the film is full of ache and longing. The setting is that of the fictional small town of Squahamish, which seems secluded to outsiders but is probably suffocating to its inhabitants. Wu has cleverly scattered classic quotes and film snippets throughout the story, using them as quirky tools of foreshadowing (they use a clip from Ek Villain at one point and I’m still not over it). Overall, the film revels in its love for literature and language, be it through Ellie and Aster’s secret exchanges, Ellie’s monologues or the pop culture references. The Half of It has to be the most quotable film I’ve seen lately. It’s as if all the characters in it are trying their best to define what love is and somehow, none of them is wrong.
Alice Wu, who herself is Chinese-American and queer, spent five years working on this story and it shows in every frame, every sentence, every indie song in the background. Through this linear yet effective plot, Wu deals with the issues of immigration, surviving as a person of colour in the Western world, sexuality and how fluid it is, and how there’s more to teenagers/young adults than raging hormones, alcohol and partying. The Half of It is a classic example of how authentic a film can be when the creator comes from the community it aims to represent. Despite having characters with very specific demographic traits, Wu does justice to the narrative by ensuring that they connect with the audience through emotions that are largely universal.
On a more personal note and as a young woman trying to make it on my own, I fell in love with the film the very first time I watched it. At the risk of sounding extremely cheesy, if I had to describe it, I’d say it reminds me of having a late night cup of hot chocolate and the final cigarette of the day by a window of my matchbox apartment, as Bombay rains drown out the loud self-doubt, and everyone celebrates being alone together just for that little while. While the promotional poster describes the film as ‘a different kind of love story’, I politely disagree. Ellie Chu is right: this is not a love story, especially not one where anyone gets what they want. It is, however, a story about friendship and reaching out anyway – one in which everyone does get what they need, even if they may not realise it right away.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.