Alice Wu’s feature debut Saving Face (2004) is beloved by many for its delightful and positive depiction of lesbian women, which is why fans have been highly anticipating the release of her sophomore feature, The Half of It. And though the film fulfills certain expectations, charmingly creating new ones while mixing in teenage angst, the end result is surprisingly underwhelming.
The Half of It quickly introduces us to Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a quiet and nerdy high schooler who writes her classmate’s essays for a fee. We soon learn she needs the money to help her widowed father pay the bills, which is why she reluctantly accepts Paul’s (Daniel Diemer) well-meaning offer to write a letter to the girl he has a crush on. The girl in question, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the beautiful daughter of their small town’s pastor, who has no idea that Ellie is the one actually writing these letters to her. In what becomes a story of longing in secret and a love triangle that is promised to end in heartbreak, The Half of It plays with ideas of love and sexuality, but never fully fulfills the expectations of romance.
The narrative’s main focus on Paul’s endeavor to win Aster’s heart leaves Ellie caught in the middle. But the more time Ellie spends with Paul the better, as the chemistry between Lewis and Diemer makes the friendship develop into something believable and heartwarming. Paul may not be the brightest, but he has a big heart and wants to earnestly get to know Ellie, something she isn’t familiar with. Their friendship, however, only formed because of their connection to Aster is interlaced with sadness, as The Half of It constantly reminds us of Ellie’s growing feelings for Aster.
This aspect of the film is what is most impactful. Ellie is a lesbian in high school in a small town, but she doesn’t have any friends to tell that to. She does her school work and watches old movies with her dad at night. She looks at the girl she likes in class from a distance, never confronting her feelings. She has nowhere to express them and no one to tell them to, which can make for a very lonely world. Her experience is one that can be relatable to many people in the gay community and it is refreshing to see it portrayed in a coming of age film.
Though The Half of It begins with Ellie telling us that this is not a love story, there are many instances that set the audience up to believe otherwise. The story is interlaced with quotes and grand stories about love, which support the exploration of what love is and what it means to love someone. Is pretending to be something you’re not the right way to get someone to like you? What does it even mean to love someone? Ellie and Paul have their own ideas about what love is and they discuss this with each other at certain points, causing realizations for each of them.
Where the film falters is that these ideas build up an expectation to a grand romantic ending, despite Ellie telling us this is not a love story. This results in an uneven script, as the majority of the time is given to Ellie and Paul’s friendship, which leads to a meandering second half. Although it ends on a happy note, which is always welcomed when it comes to movies about homosexuality, it still feels like there is something missing.
Despite the dissatisfying ending, the film still has important things to say while supplying some much needed representation. Ellie is smart and kind and happens to be in love with the same girl her friend is. There are meaningful conversations about how love is messy and painful — which is why it requires so much effort. The joy of The Half of It is watching the young characters navigate these ideas and struggles. Hopefully, it doesn’t take Alice Wu another 16 years for her next film, because the direction she is headed in is a promising one.