The Half of It
There has been an uptick in films exploring the Asian-American immigrant experience. The more mainstream of these flicks tend to gloss over the more complex aspects in exchange for mass entertainment (Crazy Rich Asians (2018), To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)). However, there have also been more delicate and nuanced explorations with The Farewell (2019) and most recently The Half of It (2020).
The Half of It is a loose adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with a modern setting in high school and a queer twist. The film follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a smart high school senior who takes payment for doing other classmates’ essays. One day she is asked by high school jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) with writing a love letter to popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie accepts but she secretly also has feelings for Aster.
The film is a much more complex and deeper view into teenage life, immigrant struggles, and queer discovery than premise demanded. Writer-director Alice Wu (this only her second film in 16 years) doesn’t settle for an easy romantic comedy, instead she really crafts subtle and three-dimensional characters. There are subtle easter eggs and references littered throughout the film that heighten Wu’s exploration and messages, from the food the characters eat to the particular instrument or films they are watching.
For many years queer cinema felt very confined to R-rating viewers, which made such films seem much more niche. The queer films that escaped such a rating usually have been few and far between, and have been very tame, watering down the homosexual aspects as if these were the factors that had earned previous films the R-rating (Love, Simon (2018)). This has made for a tough relationship of homosexuality and the big screen, since queer characters are usually chided, and such films are seen as different. It was thus incredibly refreshing and bold to see Wu use The Half of It to not only normalize a queer romance, showing it for what it is: just a romance, but to also stage scenes that the tamer non-rated-R films would have shied away from; the most poignant of which is a public declaration of queer love inside a church.
But Wu’s praise should not be for such bold decisions only, but at the creation of an incredibly affecting romance. She is able to stage such moments of unspoken emotion, as Ellie is in Aster’s presence, knowing her vulnerabilities and having exposed her own, and Aster being completely unaware of her. This fruitful romance is aided by an incredibly talented young cast of relative unknowns. Lewis is commanding in the lead role, and Lemire and Collin Chou (as Ellie’s father) are also effective with a few simple lines. However, the standout for me was Diemer, who first presents himself as a stupid jock, and while that aspect of him never changes, he finds a certain charm and goodness in his character that wins viewers over. He ends up being much more emotionally complex and magnetic than his character ever had the right to be.
Wu works within the structures of the romantic comedy genre, but she never indulges in obvious expectations, being loyal to her characters as well as giving viewers refreshing character choices.
Wu is clearly also fascinated by the immigrant aspect of the story, specifically that of Ellie and her father. There are heartbreaking scenes in which we see Ellie struggle to help her father (who is unconfident about his accent to speak English), and is willing to do an online college in order to stay and help him in their small town. This feeling of not truly belonging or being accepted is a crucial emotion immigrants have, and yet is the hardest aspect to put across on a film. Wu is successful here and is largely aided by having many of her other characters being immigrants too, Ellie is from China, but Aster is from Mexico, and Paul has a hinted German heritage. Each of these immigrant connections bring about their own complexities and confusions for the characters, but reveling in such uncertainty is the beauty of the immigrant story.
The Half of It is an exceptional good film, with a masterful directing hand. Wu’s restrained and delicate handling of the characters is something rarely seen in a mainstream picture. She is able to explore a variety of issues and yet not have the themes trip or overshadow each other. One hopes that with the Netflix platform The Half of It will be seen; the filmmaking and the star-making performances certainly demand it.