Back in 2004, Alice Wu’s Saving Face was a rare lesbian romance from the perspective of an Asian-American. With her latest romantic-comedy, The Half of It, writer-director Wu re-enters the film industry with a similar amount of heart and veracity she uncovered in her impressive directorial debut 16 years ago. The foundation of The Half of It stands on Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a play that’s been adapted various times in disparate formats. From 1984’s Electric Dreams to Netflix’s embarrassingly bad rom-com Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, a lot of projects borrowed from Cyrano. But we must inherently know that originality doesn’t automatically make a good film, and a rom-com is no exception. We willingly sink our teeth into a syrupy rom-com for the characters and their chemistry, or the film’s distinguishing aesthetic.
In the case of The Half of It, Wu transports viewers into a small, pious, and fictitious Pacific Northwestern town called Squahamish, and follows the bright and timid Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a Chinese-American straight-A student who created a successful little business writing essays for money (she abides by a catchy motto: “…it’s an A or you don’t pay”). Whatever Ellie makes, she tends to spend that money on necessities, which roughly has to do with maintaining the poky apartment she shares with her father (an endearingly reserved Collin Chou), an engineer who’s trying to learn English. Essentially tasked to write everybody’s paper, Ellie always has to explore the core topic from various angles to avoid being caught. Funnily enough, Ellie’s English teacher is fully aware that Ellie is writing all of her students’ essays, but she would rather read whatever Ellie has to say than to listen to the dimwitted critiques from her other students.
Despite running a profitable side-gig, Ellie is still unable to connect with her peers. But Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), the pleasantly ungainly tight end on the high school’s laughably bad football team, comes along to ask Ellie to help him write a love letter to the breathtakingly beautiful Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). What was supposed to be just one love letter turns into a back-and-forth conversation on text message between Aster and Ellie, who is ghostwriting the messages for Paul. Ellie soon learns that Aster is more lettered than she initially thought, so both of them revel in deeper philosophical discourse that somebody like Paul could never contemplate.
Paul is spellbound by Aster’s outer beauty, and he’s convinced that he loves her. Paul doesn’t have a way with words, but Ellie does. The back-and-forth exchange is going well via text message, but when Paul and Aster meet face-to-face, there is a clear disconnect, for obvious reasons. In order to render Paul more appealing to Aster, Ellie begins coaching him on all kinds of literary and cinematic work he can broach. But through Ellie’s attempts to revamp Paul’s image, romantic feelings are brewing beneath Ellie’s demure demeanor. No, these emerging feelings aren’t for Paul, but for Aster.
You Don’t Know The Half Of What These Characters Are Feeling
The Half of It draws on the LGBTQ experience, but this time through the eyes of an Asian-American immigrant. Right from the get-go, Ellie is a reticent, sharp-eyed, and intelligent character, verbally bullied by classmates, but she remains unfazed. Ellie does whatever she can to support her father, and get through school without succumbing to love or empty friendships. Ellie’s used to being alone.
When Paul asks Ellie to write his love letter to Aster, she accepts out of monetary need. When writing the letter, Ellie takes a shortcut by stealing a line from Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”. When Aster responds back, fully aware that there’s a subtle stroke of plagiarism, Ellie is further engrossed in what Aster has to say. Ellie and Aster seem to be on a similar wavelength when it comes to the topics of isolation, religion, and the ambiguity of life. Even though they don’t necessarily converse face-to-face, they have a nice chemistry that’s fueled by their shared feelings of loneliness and displacement.
Leah Lewis delivers an engagingly subtle and sublime performance as the wholesomely awkward Ellie. Ellie was born in Xuzhou, China, and she came to America when she was five. In the little town of Squahamish, townsfolk are highly religious and primarily white. So Ellie doesn’t try to provoke the bullies who make racist comments, and she hides away from who she really is. Alice Wu underlines a gay Asian perspective with just as much warmth and honesty as she did with Saving Face 16 years ago. Why wasn’t Hollywood inspired to follow in Alice Wu’s footsteps and feature more gay Asian leads, especially in the young adult genre? I honestly don’t know. But here we are today, and Alice Wu still has things to say about immigration and the LGBTQ experience, and it’ll be foolish to misprize The Half of It as another conventional rom-com or angsty coming-of-age story.
The three central characters have more going for them than what meets the eye, but more importantly, they act like teenagers. Deftly played by an unassuming Alexxis Lemire, Aster is a popular girl, but she was unwillingly recruited to join the popular clan, where she would then become essentially espoused to a pompous football player. But one look into her eyes and she’s visibly dejected; she doesn’t fit in with the popular crowd, and she doesn’t have a deep relationship with the aforementioned football player. Despite being a love interest for Ellie and Paul to drool over, Lemire still gives the character more depth and personality. Aster’s simply not the vapidly recalcitrant cool girl.
Paul is originally depicted to be an empty dimwit, but Wu’s script is kind to its characters. As Paul and Ellie work together to win Aster’s heart, their chemistry strengthens, and a platonic relationship seems to be in development. Paul turns out to be truehearted and irresistibly spirited; he’s somebody you would want as a friend, so good on Ellie for not immediately pushing him away. Daniel Diemer makes a memorable breakthrough performance as Paul, who enchants with puppy dog eyes and a delightfully gauche attitude.
The romantic ploy Ellie and Paul are working endlessly to uphold does not come without pesky complications, however. There are the stilted face-to-face interactions between Paul and Aster. There are Ellie’s own romantic feelings regarding Aster that are routed to be exposed. And there’s always a chance that a platonic relationship can be misconstrued as a romantic one. These issues have been plaguing the Cyrano story template for decades to come, but Wu sets her sights on an absorbing LGBTQ experience that Hollywood seems adamant in not exploring: the Asian perspective.
Love Begins At Loving Yourself
Wu tells the story of Ellie, who’s coming to terms with her sexuality, in a laudably nuanced fashion. Ellie doesn’t ever face her sexuality with a fully-fledged self-assurance we usually see in young adult films. Instead, Ellie comes to terms with her sexuality in a more uncertain and uneasy manner. But it’s really Ellie and Paul’s blossoming friendship that’s the beating heart of the film. Paul’s obtuse charisma goes well with Ellie’s unyielding reticence, as it frequently causes both of them to consider how they can help each other open up or buckle down.
Like the fictional and dreary town of Squahamish, the pace is deliberately sedate. That may initially be a turn off for viewers expecting their rom-com to be brimming with pep and color, but Wu still radiates a certain dream-like or storybook mien that counteracts the monotonous reality of Ellie, Paul, and Aster’s everyday lives in Squahamish. Wu does this through the use of literary chapter intervals, and by illuminating up the screen with flashy pictures and text messages.
At one point, Ellie’s secret desire is exposed, and that triggers an abrupt reaction from Paul. The reaction happens late into the film, but Wu’s able to conclude that thread with a stirring yet mostly nonverbal exchange between Paul and Ellie’s father. Ellie’s father has a noteworthy quote that outlines why accepting someone you love for who they are is essential: “Have you ever loved someone so much you don’t want anything about them to change?” This scene alone is beautifully acted and modestly potent.
Ellie and Paul’s romantic ruse leads to an extended church sequence where divulgences and revelations are hilariously and cathartically unveiled. The aftermath is less exciting or consequential, though that may have been the point. All in all, The Half of It is an unfussy and easygoing comedy that ends on a rather uneventful note, but the friendship appeal between Ellie and Paul remains unscathed.
Even if Ellie or Paul didn’t get the happy ending they intended, they now have each other, and Ellie will go on to college with a newfound sense of self. At the beginning of the film, Ellie is writing a philosophical paper on love. “If you ask me…people spend far too much time looking for someone to complete them. More evidence of Camus’ theory that life is irrational and meaningless”. At the time, Ellie didn’t know the platonic love of a friend, and the self-confidence that comes with accepting yourself for who you are, but now she does — and that kind of love pieces together unparalleled purpose and value that in way, shape, or form, can be considered irrational.
The Half Of It Is An Effective LGBTQ Rom-Com About A Different Kind Of Love
Alice Wu’s The Half of It is absolutely commendable in how it explores an Asian-American lesbian’s journey to self-realization. Along with Wu’s tender and layered script, the trio of young actors — Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, and Alexxis Lemire — render the film whole.
The Half of It probes love in an entirely different context than what is commonly expected in a traditional rom-com. You don’t always get the guy, and you don’t always get the girl. You can, however, develop a platonic love for somebody else. And perhaps you should love and accept yourself before finding your other half.
Have you seen The Half of It? If not, are you interested in seeing it now? Let us know in the comments!
Watch The Half of It
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.