Movie Review: The Half of It
The Half of It is about Ellie Chu, a senior in high school who has a thriving essay writing business, and because of it, is asked to write a love letter. Paul Munsky, the dopey jock, wants to woo Aster Flores with the letter because he thinks he's in love with her. It turns out, Ellie's infatuated with Aster, too. The film stars Leah Lewis, Daniel Deimer, Alexxis Lemire, Collin Chou, Wolfgang Novogratz, Enrique Murciano, Catherine Curtin, and Becky Ann Baker. It is written and directed by Alice Wu. This film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
I was charmed by The Half of It. I could have just as easily been rolling my eyes at it. It has the very familiar conceit of Cyrano de Bergerac. A shy, introspective person teams up with an oafish, outgoing person to help them win over a person they both have feelings for. The plot follows this thread for quite a while even utilizing modern technology of texting in place of shouting under balconies. My excitement at seeing this queer love triangle was almost eclipsed by hoping that this wasn't it, that it was another plug and play public domain teen rom-com. Though, as The Half of It continues it moves beyond its original conceit.
I think the brilliance in Alice Wu's script is that, while it has this structure of something familiar, the characters evolve and adapt in interesting ways. They're truly teenagers, figuring out who they are in the world. I especially like the evolution of Aster. She's presented at the beginning as the perfect teen. She's popular, beautiful, and the deacon's daughter. Yet, she's always lost in a book. She knows Wim Wenders films, philosophy and art. We see her isolation especially when she's spending time with her "friends." In a brilliant subversion of the high school girl group slow walk down a hallway, we see Aster's legs in lockstep, but her face is centirely elsewhere. She's the girl everyone loves, but no one knows.
I like especially not knowing some concrete answers. I love that we don't have a definitive statement of sexuality from any of these characters. It's clear Ellie's attracted to Aster and Paul's attracted to Aster, but Aster's attracted to different aspects of them both. Their attractions, their feelings, are exactly what teenagers face. We are pushed as teens to decide who we are and how others should perceive us, whole cloth, as we enter adulthood, but The Half of It shows that nebulousness and honesty about feelings isn't a bad thing. I like that Wu is able to keep things true to the complicated feelings of trying to find oneself. I also love the climax of the love triangle.
The culmination of the things left unsaid and the actions that dissolved friendships is backdropped by a very emotional and funny scene in the church. Poor, hapless, deluded, selfish Trig proposes to Aster, which sets off a chain reaction, first with Ellie trying to get her feelings out, then with Paul. It's an incredibly funny scene with the gasping crowd and Trig trying desperately to understand something he's not seen at all that whole time. Then it gets very emotional with the truth coming out and Ellie trying desperately to get Aster not to settle. It's a great scene and an inventive way to get to that first peak of the climax.
The principle cast is absolutely fabulous and Wolfgang Novogratz steals every scene as Trig, but I fell in love with Collin Chou's performance as Ellie's father Edwin. Chou's career has been mostly in martial arts and action roles, but here he's able to give so much with just a glance. It's so obvious he's in pain. His life is not what he thought it would be and he desperately misses his wife. He has this scene where he struggles to ask Paul the right questions about Ellie and finally he gives up and says exactly what's on his mind in Chinese. While Paul doesn't know what Edwin's saying, the emotion is written all over Chou's face and the sentiment in his words is powerful. I love an actor with real range and Collin Chou has got a lot of it here.
As a life long Washingtonian, there are many things I would nitpick about the geography and city name dropping done in the film, but I'll leave that be as I'm sure many New Yorkers, Angelenos, Bostonians, and Chicagoans have had to do many times over. There are pieces of the plot that I thought could be left out and that the Cyrano of it all goes on a little too long, but I also found myself marveling at the characters, the multilingual immigrant stories, and the movement of the plot. I cried a lot at the end because it affected me deeply. The Half of It is a charming, queer rom-com that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. I think you should put this one on your queue and let it woo you with it's great cast and engaging story.