Arts movie review

Not your traditional love story

Wu’s ‘The Half of It’ embraces the confusion and nonlinearity of teenage feelings

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Leah Lewis stars in Alice Wu's new film ‘The Half of It,’ now streaming on Netflix.
KC Bailey

The Half of It
Directed by Alice Wu
Screenplay by Alice Wu
Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire
Rated PG-13
Streaming on Netflix

The Half of It is director and screenwriter Alice Wu’s first film since her 2004 debut film Saving Face, which broke unspoken boundaries with its portrayal of an Asian, lesbian couple. Her new story is beyond a classic high school rom-com, exploring the youthful longing for love and something more. These emotions, captured by the actors’ realistic performances, perfectly tap into teenage confusion and self-discovery. 

The film is set in a rural town called Squahamish, where protagonist Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives with her single father. She accepts the inherent isolation that comes with being the only Asian person and ghost writer for her high school peers’ essays. When Paul (Daniel Diemer), a football player, approaches Ellie for help writing love letters to a girl named Aster (Alexxis Lemire), they form a conning duo and an unlikely friendship. However, as the letters build up, Ellie, posing as Paul, finds herself developing a deeper connection with Aster. This comical and stressful situation forces the three characters to reflect on their relationships as well as themselves.

Throughout the film, the characters struggle with feeling stuck in their unfulfilling but familiar lives. Daily routines, familial expectations, and discrimination are tolerated in Squahamish, a town seemingly as old-fashioned and rustic as the nostalgic idea of writing love letters. The wistful setting is established with shots capturing the long-stretching railroad and Ellie biking among vast hills and trees, all with a faded, musty wash of colors.

The town frozen in time is juxtaposed with the realistic youthfulness with which Ellie, Paul, and Aster are portrayed. Leah Lewis as Ellie feels especially honest, from the modest styling of her outfits to the quiet strength of her deep voice and wide eyes. Lewis and Diemer have unparalleled chemistry as Ellie and Paul, who have the most heartwarming friendship and growth throughout the film. The film’s focus on their interaction shows that Wu wrote The Half of It to look beyond love interests and tap into the inevitable self-realizations when developing feelings for someone else.

The exploration of LGBTQ identity through Ellie’s literal hiding behind “Paul’s” letters avoids being too cliché as the film shows Ellie’s charade extending to other parts of her life. The somewhat montage-y back-and-forth exchanges of letters — and later, text messages — are a little tiring but provide some funny moments due to Paul’s endearingly clumsy personality. Undertones of religion, with scenes in Church and an emphasis on Aster’s family being religious and conservative, add further layers to the characters’ personalities and conflicts. The film treads the tricky line of representation and succeeds in offering an organic glimpse of a teenage girl who is questioning her identity, without making it an overt message story. 

Wu proves to be a writer and director who can purposefully capture tricky, in-between feelings and extrapolate their importance. The Half of It is satisfyingly real because it recognizes teenage love as often unsuccessful, longing for truths that are not apparent yet. But there’s nothing wrong with that: even if the lead does not get the girl or even get to understand themself, there is still a story worth being told.