Quick question, what was the last thing in your life that went as perfectly as you imagined it in your head? Most people would probably have to think of an event that happened prior to 2020, and some will struggle to even recall. The Half of It, written and directed by Alice Wu, recognizes the questionable batting average of human ambition. The film takes its characters through the wringer of chance, chances, and how our imagination is so incongruent with our reality.
Our POV character is Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a straight-A Asian-American high schooler living in the fictional town of Squahamish, Wa. She’s intelligent, hard-working, well-read, philosophical, as well as a bit of a dick (in a fun/charming way). Her reputation as a prodigy is so ubiquitous that she frequently does other students’ homework in exchange for money. But that is the extent of her social interactions, as she doesn’t feel comfortable around her classmates. There’s also the occasional douches who yell “Chugga Chugga Chu Chu” on her way home from school. But her social dynamic changes when her classmate Paul (Daniel Diemer) enlists her help to write love letters to his crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Paul, who feels his writing is too simplistic to catch Aster’s attention, pays Ellie to write the letters, and Ellie reluctantly obliges. But Paul is oblivious to one crucial detail that may prove to be a conflict of interest – he and Ellie share the same crush.
What proceeds is a lively back and forth between Ellie and Aster, who’s under the impression that she’s writing Paul. Paul is shy, which combined with his relatively limited interests (football, his family’s restaurant) seems to make for a poor match with Aster. Meanwhile, Aster and Ellie bond over art, literature, and a desire to be seen in a way that is true to them rather than an adherence to social norms. The story, at least early on, sees Ellie and Aster build a romance, yet Ellie is the only one of the three that knows this. But Paul fights aggressively against his social anxiety and the lack of shared interests in an attempt to date Aster. Effectively, the film presents two possible outcomes for the viewer to be invested in. But to root for one is to actively root against another.
This, of course, is intentional on Wu’s part. She’s careful not to be too biased in her framing of the story, which is best seen in the humanity afforded to Paul. Paul, the who plays tight end for the football team, could easily come off as just a dumb jock. At times, he does come off as that stereotype, but Wu is beyond empathetic to Paul’s character, desires, and inability to articulate his thoughts. Meanwhile, Aster isn’t just a flawless nice girl, but a confused adolescent who’s grossly aware of her supposed lack of choices in her small town, combined with her bouts with self-esteem and the occasional tendency to be conceited.
What connects Aster and Paul’s journey is Ellie’s own inner struggle. Instead of presenting Ellie as a wunderkind with no legitimate obstacles, Wu depicts Ellie as a smart kid whose lack of friendships has left her cynical and pragmatic. She doesn’t have the warmth of Paul, Paul lacks her well-rounded interests, and Aster lacks Ellie’s initiative and ability to see beyond one’s self. By way of this weird, unconventional relationship between the 3 characters, they all begin to pick up something from each other as their bonds grow.
The last film Wu directed, released 15 years ago, was Saving Face (2005). That film also dealt with the complicated love life of a queer Asian-American. Wu, who is gay, puts her experiences front and center in her work while using the rom-com format to adhere to or subvert expectations. Both of her feature films set up key tropes: the hopeless romantic, the love interest, the tendency to have grand admissions of affection play out in front of large groups of people.
However, where the two films diverge is the outcome of their conflicts. Given the 15-year time difference between the two films, it’s unclear if The Half of It is evidence of Wu’s growth & maturity, or if she just wants to show a different outcome to a timeless dilemma. Saving Face is a great film, but The Half of It is the superior work, both in terms of narrative as well as production.
An assist also is owed to DOP Greta Zozula. Her cinematography is an understated beauty, capturing that small-town look of mundane yet striking. All in all, this is a clear improvement from a director whose 15-year absence calls into question the number of opportunities afforded to female directors of color. With platforms such as Netflix available, we hopefully do not have to wait another 15 years for Wu’s next mediation on love.
However, credit for the film’s success also extends to the cast itself. The screenplay is dialogue-heavy, placing the burden on the actors to hold our attention for the entire runtime. The dialogue goes a mile a minute, a difficult task for the actors as they have to deliver their verbose monologues in expedient fashion while also providing each word with the necessary pathos – all harder than you’d think. The only character that feels out of place is Aster’s current boyfriend, Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz). He’s surprisingly underwritten and a bit too goofy for a film that tends to aim for realism. He seems like a stock character out of a sillier comedy, like Wedding Crashers (2005).
As the story reaches a resolution, it’s clear everyone may not get what they want or in the form they expected it. Yet, the film manages to build towards a conclusion that mimics a classic rom-com trope, in which someone has to run to catch someone else, but the scene here has a completely different meaning to it. It’s a reminder that human connection is just as important as romantic love, and that relationships that matter the most may not always be the ones that end in someone’s bed. The deepest relationships build over time; they won’t develop how you planned, but you’ll be glad you have them.