A refreshing, heartwarming coming-of-age story, discussing love in every way in which it can exist.
The Half of It, writer-director Alice Wu’s queer take on Cyrano de Bergerac, is a masterclass in visual storytelling that will definitely leave you wanting the other half.
It is easy to draw comparisons with Netflix’s recent rom-coms here. Sierra Burgess is a Loser was also a take on Cyrano de Bergerac. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before had an Asian lead actress too, but the lack of Noah Centineo in The Half of It isn’t the only thing that sets it apart. Wu’s film doesn’t have the typical ‘Rom-Com Fantasy Filter’. It looks and feels grounded in reality, and is more reminiscent of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, another ‘you-think-it’s-a-love-story-but-it-isn’t’ film, than any of the other Netflix movies in the same genre. Both The Half of It and Earl centre on the building of relationships between three central characters. As both leads say, “this isn’t that kind of story,” the characters don’t end up getting what they want necessarily but rather what they need.
Shy and introverted Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is an excellent student who helps her widowed father pay the bills by selling school assignments. When football player/sausage-maker Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) requests her help in writing a love letter to popular girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie hesitantly agrees. Ellie and Paul begin a budding friendship, as they work together to woo Aster through letters and messages. However, soon enough Ellie realises she is falling in love with Aster as well.
Wu expands upon the simple premise by seamlessly integrating themes relating to cultural diaspora, faith, and what it means to be in love. With cleverly scripted scenes, Wu tackles the discussion of racism and immigration in a deeply personal manner that produces a lingering feeling of being understood. This extends from Ellie’s constant teasing about her last name to how she responds to her father in English and Mandarin. It is Ellie saying her favourite meal is braised pork over rice, which turns into Paul making a braised pork sausage. It is Paul and Ellie’s shared appreciation of Yakult. And it is her father’s struggles in succeeding in America, despite having a PhD.
Not only is the story and its characters compelling, Wu and her production designers impress from a visual standpoint. The Half of It invites us into the sleepy town of Squahamish, its muted colours and worn flannel shirts creating an cosy feeling to the place. Nothing feels left to chance in this film. Every shot feels cared for and well planned. The same care has been put into the script. Ellie and Aster’s online screen names even reflect their identities and dreams: SmithCorona (the brand of typewriter) for Ellie, our eloquent writer; DiegaRiverio, a play on Spanish artist Diego Rivera, for secretly artistic Aster. Wu has taken characters that are often hidden in the background, or set aside as sidekicks for the usual suspects, and made them the stars – with brilliant performances from a breakout cast.
The title, The Half of It, is fitting. This is only half of the story. We are left on what appears to be the start of the rest of the characters’ lives. Are humans truly half of a whole, searching their whole life for their other half, as Ellie and Plato surmise in the introduction? Although it is very clearly not a traditional love story, ‘a story about love’ is the only way to accurately summarise this film. To quote Ellie Chu: “Love is messy and horrible and selfish… and bold.” I would highly recommend watching the film twice. Once on its own, and then again with Alice Wu’s commentary, available as an episode of the podcast Watching With….
The Half of It, directed by Alice Wu, is available to stream now via Netflix, certificate 12.