This review of The Half of It contains minor spoilers.
Teenhood is one of the most complicated phases one can experience. You hit puberty, start getting normalised with more mature talk, and walla… you’re thrust into adulthood within the next few cycles of the Sun. And of course, stuff like crushes come in, and it’s all a fuzz. It’s the mix of hormones and emotions that jumbles your thoughts and causes a whole roller-coaster of turmoil and delight. By adulthood, most have already sorted and compartmentalized various aspects of life, but certainly, the journey to get there, the coming-of-age trip is not easy.
Netflix recently premiered The Half of It, which had just won big at the 2020 Tribeca film festival. Though it was unconventional to not have a full-on physical film fest due to the state of the world right now, Tribeca persisted with a digital event during which writer-director Alice Wu won The Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature for her film. The jury cited the motion-picture as a charming, energetic, and confident coming-of-age film, so, naturally, I decided to check it out when it was released on the streaming platform last week. Do take note that this is only the second feature film for the programmer-turned-filmmaker after her indie, “Saving Face”, which garnered her a couple of international awards.
Set in the fictional Washington town of Squahamish, The Half of It sets its focus on Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a bright but reserved student who has an enterprise for ghost-writing her classmate’s assignments. When a desperate Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) pleads for her assistance in writing to his crush, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie reluctantly takes it on not only as an opportunity for some much-needed cash but also a way to get to Aster, whom she secretly has a crush on.
The plot essentially revolves around these three characters, exploring the different sides of their psychology and how each of them perceives the very theme of love. Ellie is a conflicted character of sorts. She’s an immigrant, dwelling with her widowed father at a train crossing. She does not share the ingrained belief in God that the quaint town has, and yet religiously plays the organ for the local church every Sunday. She barely has friends, but still performs deeds for her classmates in the name of money.
Meanwhile, Paul Munsky is a determined individual who truly believes in his endeavours even though he does not have the proper resources to get to his train stop. Munsky’s boyish visage remains just an external feature for him as he’s just hopeless and awkward around the ladies. Nevertheless, Daniel Diemer’s character serves as the catalyst for Ellie’s personal growth. Her stagnation is broken when he confides in her ability to express. In some way, she finally gets something that she truly gives a damn about.
And then there’s the MacGuffin for these two. Aster. Flores. Both have fallen head over heels for her and manifest their awkward selves when they meet her. It’s all cheeky stares and side glances prior, but as previously noted, Aster is a humble personality, and she continually entertains the Mun-chu advances. Indeed, the Cyrano de Bergerac trope whereby a figure is too shy to slide into his/her crush’s but instead employs an external aid to supplant words or thoughts into his/her mouths is used perfectly with Ellie performing her arbitrary role for the hopeless romantic.
As the poster and the opening narration suggest, this is a different kind of love story. This isn’t that bug-eyed romance of a Lara Jean Covey and a Peter Kavinsky. No. Tropes are turned over instantly. The good-looking high school jock? Yeah, he’s a bumbling doof. The gorgeous popular girl? She’s absolutely modest and nice. There’s no need for sex, groping, or fantasizing. It’s all very down-to-earth in that regard.
It doesn’t take Sherlock to figure out that The Half of It is a deeply personal story. Alice Wu wastes no time in informing you of the parallel between her name and the main protagonist’s right within the film’s opening credits. Wu is Chinese-American and also queer, hence, the themes of sexuality and marginalisation ingrained within her art. However, while these are explored, they flow seamlessly within the plot and is not something that comes off as pushy. It’s well-thought-out and adds several layers to our heroes.
What I absolutely adore most, though, are the details peppered throughout the film. Various references to other media constantly show up in dialogue or on-screen, but it isn’t something planted there for the sake of a filler. Like how your favourite spices and herbs marinate your rendition of Colonel Sander’s famed formula, these features certainly add to the flavour of the plot. Ellie’s dad (played by The Matrix: Revolution‘s Collin Chou) will always be watching something on the telly like City Lights or Casablanca, or the characters will scarcely discuss the plot of a novel, but these certainly are not foddered. They add a certain layer of depth to the situational circumstance within the plot, and how it plays out is simply genius.
There are also four distinct quotes pasted on black within the movie. It notably commences with the eldest, the Greek philosopher, Plato, and moves on up to our current timeline in the 21st century, where we end up with a line of dialogue from our film’s protagonist. But overall, what it does is that it serves as the pillars of the narratives, signifying the alpha and the omega of a particular act. These quotes are all definitions of love and relationships, and they suit the mood and tone set due to the events that are about the transpire.
Besides, I absolutely adore the amount of thought that went into the filmmaking itself. The shots and frames are edited in such a manner that yields life and meaning. They’re bold. They linger enough on the emotion conveyed through the actors, who by the way, are fantastic. Many a time, proverbial lines are drawn up on the screen, signifying a divide between the relationships. Ellie may be standing on one half of the frame opposite Paul, and the audience is left to ponder on whether the other will be crossing the literal line on a road or in a shabby ol’ school bus. It’s quite the sight, and the sheer joy and sadness that comes along with witnessing these scenes are absolutely worth it.
I can’t help but gush at this film. The Half of It fully commits as one of the best coming-of-age dramedies I have watched in recent times. It’s an emotionally intelligent, well-performed, and a splendidly executed narrative. Every emotion displayed on-screen is felt as you genuinely care for these characters. As a matter of fact, after my first watch, I went back to the beginning and played the film to the end right away. That’s how gripping it was to me.
Similar to 500 Days of Summer, this isn’t a love story. The characters do not attain what they set out for, and yet they end up fulfilled. Really, it’s about the journey. The self-discovery. A time of growth. These kids are all in their senior year in this film, on the brink of moving on to the next phase which was adulthood. They see one last chance for love but, alas, find that their claimed definitions were all unrealistic reveries. But, they discover something in the form of hope. And this hope is what brings these three to bond together with a newfound platonic love being born out of it.
Yes, many times, Hollywood has whipped up sugar factories, with loads of sexual intimacy on first dates and whatnot. However, be realistic. This sort of thing gives us false illusions of love. Akin to a coming-of-age story, it’s the journey that matters. The destination may vary, but truly the lessons learnt and the relationships built are the boldest strokes in the painting of life.
The Half of It is currently streaming on Netflix.