Written by: Joe Lollo
The Half of It is the latest in a series of straight-to-Netflix coming-of-age films. However, it has something that the rest of these films often lack: it’s genuinely good. The Half of It is Alice Wu’s sophomore directorial outing and the winner of The Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. It follows a Cyrano de Bergerac-esque tale, set in a fictional small town in the Pacific Northwest. Its protagonist, Ellie Chu, is a Chinese-American teenager who makes a living writing her classmate’s essays. Her life is forever altered when she agrees to ghostwrite a love letter for awkward jock Paul Munsky to her classmate Aster Flores. As their deception becomes more elaborate, it becomes more and more clear that Ellie’s feelings for Aster aren’t just on behalf of her classmate.
What’s special about The Half of It is, among other things, that it contains a variety of love stories, and not just the ones you may be used to seeing on screen. There are Aster and Paul, where the shy guy falls for the seemingly perfect popular girl, even if he has trouble expressing it. There are Ellie and Aster, where the quiet and introverted outcast falls for someone she knows she can never have. Then there’s Ellie and Paul, where the two realize that friendship can take root and grow in the most unlikely of places, and between the most unlikely of people. Additionally, The Half of It is no normal coming-of-age story. While initially focused on romantic love, the true core of the story centers around self-love. The characters have varying luck in their romantic pursuits, but each develops a fuller understanding of themselves and their identities in the process.
Besides the previously mentioned relationships, the film is not only about cultivating personal and social growth, but artistic growth as well. At the start of the film, Ellie is only able to understand things like love through the words of others, and is only comfortable when she is ghostwriting. Slowly but surely, she begins to come into her own, performing her compositions at a talent show and sharing her writing with her friends. We bear witness to her artistic endeavors, and watch as she begins to understand the world through her own framework, rather than only through the words of others.
The only flaw in The Half of It is that the film sometimes tries to tackle too many issues and character arcs at the same time. Certain things, like Aster’s relationship with her family and Ellie’s future aspirations, are explored in less detail than they could have been. This is not to say that the relationships Wu chooses to focus on are not worthy, just that the film could have done a lot with an additional 15 minutes. The ending also feels slightly rushed. There’s an implied time jump that skips over most of the fallout of the climax, which could have been really fascinating to see on screen. Again, with an extra 15 minutes or so, we could have seen more of the characters’ emotional states following the inevitable, and climactic, reveal of the truth. While the last act of the film has its flaws, the final scene of the film is fantastic, and I hope it lingers our collective consciousness for a long time to come.
An increase in the diversity of Hollywood means an increase in the diversity of the stories it tells. Where there was once one single coming-of-age narrative, there are now many; a growing number of stories and perspectives, rising every year. With a plurality of coming-of-age narratives, we can show the teenagers of tomorrow that there is no one “right” way to grow up. Growing up is isolating but, if The Half of It has taught us anything, it’s that art can help us develop a connection to the people around us. As Wu said recently on twitter, “the only reason to make a film is to connect”. Overall, The Half of It is a wonderfully written tale that is the perfect antidote to these scary and isolating times. From a UW perspective, this film is highly recommended if you’re an out of state student currently missing the Pacific Northwest. Alice Wu has created something special here, and it’s not a film you’ll want to miss out on.