via Netflix / KC Bailey
Watching the trailer for The Half of It, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the latest Netflix’s rom com. It has all the hallmarks of the genre: boy comes up with ill-advised plan to get the girl to notice him; finding out the right person was under your nose the whole time; the grand, romantic gesture. But The Half of It isn’t really a rom com, it’s not even really a straight romance. Instead, it’s a coming of age story that sets out to deconstruct Hollywood romanticism.
(Warning: Some spoilers.)
The film (which was honored by the Tribeca Film Festival with The Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature) opens with a quote from Plato: “Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole.” This is the first of many quotes that ground the film in its examination of love. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is our hero, a super smart straight-A student who writes other students’ essays for cash. When Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), resident high school jock, approaches her to help him write a love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the two form an unlikely friendship while they both navigate their feelings for Aster.
The film opens with an animated sequence of Ellie’s retelling of a Greek myth about finding your other half. It’s lyrical, uplifting, and beautiful, about when someone finds their other half “there’s an unspoken understanding, a unity, and each would know no greater joy.” Ellie then brings us crashing down to Earth with, “Of course, the ancient Greeks never went to high school,” accompanied by two teenagers making out in front of their lockers, losing interest in each other the second they stop kissing, focusing instead on their phones.
This opening narration is an excerpt from a paper she was writing for another student, and is a perfect introduction to Ellie. In these opening few minutes, it is clear that Ellie is smart, articulate, and a keen observer of those around her, even though she avoids direct interaction (unsurprisingly, she walks past as the other kids yell “Chugga, Chugga, Chu Chu!”). The remainder of the opening ten minutes of the film are equally effective, using smart camerawork and efficient editing to set up Ellie’s world and status within it.
The world of the film is painted with authenticity in a way that separates it from most romantic films. It fully leans into the overcast, hilly landscape of the tiny town of Squahamish instead of trying to glamourize it. And the actors all look like real people. Yes, they’re attractive (which is a prerequisite to be cast in a romance), but they’re the type of attractive you might see walking down the street, instead of the kind of attractive that usually grace the big screen. This helps to make Ellie, Paul, and Aster more grounded and relatable. It’s much easier to see yourself in characters who look like you and the people you know.
It’s a promising start but once the main plot takes over, The Half of It starts to lose its way a little. The solid foundational work done in the opening third is largely disregarded in favour of the “love triangle” between Ellie, Paul, and Aster. While the relationship between Ellie and Aster is solid, and Leah and Alexxis have a lovely, easy chemistry, Paul’s character is a weak link. He is a character of few words in a film where words drive everything.
via Netflix / KC Bailey
Side plots of Ellie’s business, her relationship with her father (Collin Chou) and teacher Mrs. Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker), feel rushed and crammed in. The relationship between Aster and Paul also strains credibility. It’s hard to believe she could think that Paul was the one writing to her. There is also the small matter of Aster’s boyfriend, who is barely acknowledged.
The Half of It focuses on intellectual and philosophical discussions that at times feel too on the nose. Love is supposed to be at the centre of the film, but overall, it feels quite clinical. While in many ways this is consistent with Ellie’s character, it also largely eliminates the emotional core of the film.
via Netflix / KC Bailey
There are a lot of words in The Half of It as people try to explain what they are feeling, but it’s in the quiet moments that the most clarity and understanding is found. The pinnacle of this is near the end of the film in a moment between Paul and Ellie’s father. These are the two characters who struggle with language but manage to say more with their limited speech than all the words in the film combined. Collin Chou gives an acting masterclass and Daniel Diemer is right there with him. It’s a quiet moment. Most of the dialogue is in Mandarin which gives an added layer of emotional understanding for English speaking Paul and what will be a largely English-speaking audience. The brilliance of this moment is that it gives space for a father’s love for his child to fill the silence. For all the philosophizing, this is the moment where The Half of It truly finds the answer to the big questions, made all the more powerful because the answers don’t need to be spoken.
via Netflix / KC Bailey
The final scene of the film between Ellie and Aster is more dialogue heavy than the scene with Paul and Ellie’s dad, but it also gives the characters space to breathe. This space is filled with more meaning than any of the letters and texts they exchanged throughout the film.
I give full props to writer/director Alice Wu for the ambition behind The Half of It—for the attempt to inject high-level philosophy and big ideas into a genre that so often caters to the lowest common denominator. In many ways, The Half of It mirrors its central message in its construction: it’s messy, but it’s the trying and reaching that makes something worthwhile. The central analogy of the film is that the difference between a good painting and a great one is 5 strokes; you have to be willing to make those 5 extra bold strokes and risk ruining your good painting for the chance at a great one.
Here’s The Rundown
This isn’t your average Rom Com: The Half of It gives us characters that are easy to relate to because the film is more grounded in reality than your average rom com. That makes it easy to see ourselves in the characters and empathize with their struggles.
It’s a win for diverse storytelling: There aren’t many mainstream films out there about queer Asian women or queer love stories that are about more than coming out. The Half of It gives us a queer Asian story where these are just part of Ellie’s identity, not the sole focus of the story.
It will challenge you intellectually: The Half of It isn’t content to simply be a romantic diversion. Instead, it poses big, messy questions about love and relationships that don’t have easy answers. It’s not afraid to paint relationships in shades of gray and trusts its audience to make their own conclusions instead of giving them all the answers.
BONUS: Faze had a chance to speak with star Leah Lewis about her role in The Half of It.
Faze: What drew you to the part of Ellie?
LEAH: Right from reading the logline and just seeing what happened in the story, it was very simple: Jock teams up with Ellie Chu to write a letter to Aster Flores, girl also falls in love with girl. I was like, “Oh my God.” But immediately what drew me to Ellie specifically was how intelligent she was and how internally rich she was. She was this full-fledged human being already as a teenager.
Faze: Can you speak a bit about the process of building Ellie’s character since she’s both very verbal, but also very introspective?
LEAH: Ellie naturally is an observer and a wallflower, but given the fact that she lives in this small town Squahamish and, as far as we know, she is the only Chinese family in the town, any attention she does receive is usually negative as we see bullies yelling, “Chugga, Chugga Chu Chu.” So she keeps mainly to herself. She only really opens up around people that are comfortable. You see her relationship with Paul progress as they talk more and more and then you start to see her open up, but not without some push first. And for me, it was interesting because I’m a bit more loud and out there and I talk to more people and that was something Alice recognized very early on. So before we even dove into getting to know Ellie Chu, Alice got to know me—really every single part of me—and we were able to find the more quiet sides of myself and connect with Ellie so so so deeply.
I’m a very internal person. I love writing, I love reading, and I love music, and I love observing. It was Alice who helped me to tap into that side that I wasn’t quite aware existed when I first auditioned. But we really found Ellie together along with Alice’s life experiences that matched with mine.
Faze: Can you speak about music? It plays a pivotal role in the film and I know you have a music background.
LEAH: I, as Leah, do play guitar and I do sing. Ellie is actually a much better guitar player than me. I had to take two months of lessons to be able to play that song that was written by Joe Pernice. In the movie it was actually sung by Brandi Ediss. It was actually written and recorded before I even came on board. But for me as Leah, it was really cool because music is such a language for me and to know that it was such a big part of Ellie’s life and something that meant a lot to her and her mother as we see the picture of her mother in the guitar case. I think a lot of the more adventurous, expressive, out-there things are associated with Ellie’s mom. I don’t think Ellie is as comfortable showing these things to the world as when mom was alive.
Faze: Can you speak a little about the importance of representation on and off-screen?
LEAH: I’m so grateful that I was able to be attached to a project that does have inclusive choices. Other than the fact that we’re showing a side of the Latinx experience, with Alexxis Lemire as Aster Flores, but also showing what it’s like to grow up as an Asian-American or fully Asian. A lot of stories aren’t really centred around immigrant families, and stories like that need to be told. On top of that, our DOP, Greta Zuzula, is also female and so is our production designer, Susan Chan, who is also Asian and our art director, Jasmine Cho. I don’t think Alice was like, “We need to have a female for this, this and this,” but Alice was very aware of including that and we ended up having a lot of female energy behind the camera. Women just took charge.
Faze: How much philosophy did you know coming into this film?
LEAH: I do not have a background in philosophy, but I love reading philosophy. Alice assigned me to read No Exit, which appears in the film a couple times, more than people might realize if they haven’t read No Exit. I feel like a lot of these characters parallel the characters in No Exit, which was written by Sartre. Essentially, the point of No Exit is hell is other people. And this is said by Mrs. G. It’s something that Ellie is trying to teach Paul, and truly we see these characters, not necessarily be in hell like they are in No Exit, but it’s them trying to be with people and trying to interact with people and they are struggling so hard.
I feel like when Alice had me read that, it helped me see the parallels between the characters and also how Ellie thinks. Ellie does not believe in God, but she does admit to Aster that it’s very lonely. I think that’s the first time that Ellie realizes that for herself.
Because Ellie is such a bookworm, I found myself reading every single day on set and really diving in. That helped me access Ellie. I loved it. And I loved reading No Exit. I thought it was a really cool school project that Alice gave me. I have definitely branched out and read more books. I just read The Stranger by Camus, which I probably would never have read had Alice not brought that up and had Ellie not brought it up in the movie.
Faze: Has working on The Half of It changed your perspectives on love and relationships?
LEAH: We read about love and we watch love, but I think that something we come to realize as we get older is that we experience love completely differently. This movie left me very vulnerable. It’s not just about the romance in this film. You see Ellie love her father. You see the love in the plutonic friendship. Even though I was open to many different ways of loving before, I think this film really heightened that for me and gave me the courage to dive more into the relationships in my life.
Faze: What bold stroke would you like to take in your career or your life in general?
LEAH: Something I’ve always wanted to do that is a bold stroke, I laugh at this, but do hip hop. I know that is really random, but I have this huge fear of dancing in front of people, and I really want to get better at that. I love expression and I love dancing, but I’m just so scared. I’m kind of taking classes and trying to step out of my comfort zone a little. That’s definitely a secret, but bold stroke for me that I would like to make.
Faze: What do you think is the most important takeaway from The Half of It?
LEAH: I think the most important takeaway is to focus on love itself rather than the way that people choose to love or how they love. I really, really want to encourage people to look to that bigger picture because love is what unites us and it is the bigger picture.