the-half-of-it

Director: Alice Wu

Cast: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire

Streaming: Netflix

Alice Wu knows a thing or two about being different. She was born to parents who were Taiwanese immigrants in California. She quit her software engineering career at Microsoft to become a full-time filmmaker in New York City. And most of all, she came out as a lesbian in the ultra-traditional Chinese-American community. Her first film, Saving Face, released in 2005, long before “representation” became an artistic hashtag and commercial codeword. Saving Face revealed love as the bridge that connects the degrees of difference: Sexual identity (a surgeon pursues a same-sex relationship with a dancer) within racial identity (they are Chinese-American) is juxtaposed against cultural identity (she is afraid of kissing her in public), which is further juxtaposed against social identity (her mother is banished for being pregnant out of wedlock) and familial identity (ethnic estrangement unites mother and daughter). Fifteen years later, Wu’s second film reveals difference as the bridge that connects the degrees of love. 

Within the first ten minutes of The Half of It, a charming coming-of-age drama wearing the sheepish skin of a teen rom-com, one young character ponders to another: Doesn’t everyone think they’re different, but we’re all pretty much different in the same way? At this point, the “image” of the film melts away. We stop looking at the labels. The protagonist, Ellie Chu (a pitch-perfect Leah Lewis), is the kind of different that the movies fetishize – she’s a nerdy Asian-American introvert who has no friends and a depressed father, and earns pocket money by penning essays for her disinterested classmates. And she’s queer. But Ellie is no more different than the two other misfits in this triangle. The object of her closeted affection, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), is a pretty all-American girl who is intellectually at odds with the concept of her high-school popularity. People see her face and think “catholic cheerleader, rich future husband,” but she’s a reader and a thinker, cursed by the binaries of beauty and cornered by the roadmap of her future. And she’s lonely. Another silent admirer of hers, Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), is a trademark jock – but he is unusually sensitive, surprisingly creative (the inventor of “sausage tacos”), and struggles to defy his own small-town conditioning. And he’s shy. As a result, The Half of It kicks off with Paul paying Ellie to write love letters to Aster for him. (Ellie also works as a signalman of her town’s train station – a nice little nod to how she is both literally and figuratively controlling the movement of trains, of both passengers and thought). Naturally, Aster is intrigued by these articulate letters, by the literary references, by the tender musings and witty wordplay. And naturally, Ellie enjoys this sudden license to express herself beyond her philosophy papers – all those theories can now be applied to the limitless field of practice.

The Half of It guides the gaze from the outside to the inside. From the platform to the compartment. From the lovers to their longing

If this premise vaguely reminds South Asian viewers of the Hindi films Mujhse Dosti Karoge and Kal Ho Naa Ho (conservative folks might readily equate Aman’s terminal illness with Ellie’s queerness), wait till you see the way Alice Wu’s self-aware screenplay riffs on a scene from Mohit Suri’s Ek Villain. The moment features a desperate hero running the length of a platform to catch the attention of the teary heroine seated inside the moving train. In more ways than one, The Half of It guides the gaze from the outside to the inside. From the platform to the compartment. From the lovers to their longing. And, most remarkably, from the scour of the world to the power of the word. 

Which brings me to the essence of this run-of-the-windmill story. While most films focus on the language of longing, The Half of It understands the importance of language in longing. We live in an age where technology enables us to hide behind words; physical attraction is routinely substituted with digital affection. We tend to write and read and imagine before we touch and kiss and realize. For most, texting is the prologue to meeting and falling in love. But for the different – the dreamers, the introverts, the socially awkward – texting is both the process and the destination. For the different, words become the lifecycle of love; their romance lies in minds meeting rather than hearts beating. The dots of an ellipsis hold more meaning than the intertwining of fingers because those dots evoke hope and aspirations of that touch. Ellie and Aster elongate emotion through the letters – they trade thoughts (“I’m like a lot of people, which makes me kind of no one”) that sound like words freed from the burden of speaking.



But two of the film’s finest sequences best illustrate this literature of love. The first features Aster on a date with Paul, unaware of Paul and Ellie’s surrogate arrangement. Ellie watches from a parked car outside the diner. When Ellie notices how doomed the date looks, she begins to text Aster from Paul’s ID. Aster assumes that the shy Paul is texting her from across the table, while Ellie from afar admires the subtle twitch of her lips when she blushes. For a few fleeting minutes, words dress their difference in the comforting attire of diffidence. The second scene features Aster on an instinctive day out with Ellie at a hot spring. Half-submerged in the warm shiny water, Aster confesses that Paul is confusing – “In person, he makes me feel safe, but his texts are not safe”. Ellie, almost on cue, turns to words like a writer aching to be heard. Out of nowhere, she says something profound – Gravity is matter’s response to loneliness – because she can. Because it’s who they are, and it’s also what the film is. When Aster meets Paul that night, she kisses him, as if she were trying to compare the sensuality of touch to the sensibility of Ellie’s art.

It explains why Paul believes that love is about the “effort” one makes – he represents a more conventional cycle, in which people meet first, then feel for one another and then change to fit each other’s feelings. But for Ellie, and consequently Aster, it’s no coincidence that the art of writing reflects the act of falling in love: “messy, selfish…and bold”. Or, as Ellie further elaborates, “Risking ruining a good painting to make it great”. They don’t need to change, because they’re already different to begin with. Their words merge their worlds, and everything after that is about trying to reach the promise of those words in person. It’s near-impossible to scale this peak of measured space, a feel-good sadness that perhaps urges Ellie to warn us at the beginning that this is, in fact, not a love story. It cannot be. After all, if gravity is matter’s response to loneliness, language is love’s declaration of it.  

Netflix’s The Half of It Is The Definitive Feel-Good Tragedy Of Our Times, Film Companion

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