Movie Review: The Half of It (2020)

by Brittany B | 07/15/2020

The Netflix original movie, The Half of It directed and written by Alice Wu (director and writer of Saving Face), is an interesting take on a high school romance drama. Interesting because, well, minor spoiler alert that the film gives away within the first five minutes – it isn’t actually a romance.

A shy, introverted, Chinese-American, straight-A student finds herself helping the school jock woo the girl they both secretly love. In the process, each teaches the other about the nature of love as they find connection in the most unlikely of places.

The Half of It was cute. Was it a ground breaking cinematic masterpiece? No, but not every film needs to be. The Half of It was full of its own charm as it navigated the story of three teens, centered from the perspective of Ellie (played by Leah Lewis), who are all trying to figure out what love means to them. They all have different interpretations of what the illusive four letter word feels and looks like but they all seem to have inklings of if for one another in their own right.

Ellie is a straight-A student who plays in the school band and plays the church organ every Sunday but she is perhaps most well known for her independent business of writing other students’ papers for a nominal fee. She gets away with it because her English teacher would prefer to read her writing than the drivel normally submitted by the other students. Ellie’s side hustle as an essayist is how she meets Paul Munsky (played by Daniel Diemer). Paul is a clumsy, not-so-talented football player who asks Ellie to help him write a love letter to the most beautiful girl in school, Aster Flores (played by Alexxis Lemire). The rest of the film is Ellie and Paul navigating the back and forth letter writing and wooing of Aster, as if a complicated chess game and the many pitfalls and triumphs in their endeavor to do so.

Although the focus of the film is predominately the love letters and texts that Ellie ghost writes for Paul to Aster, the story expands from there as Ellie and Paul’s friendship begins to develop. The viewer sees two awkward teenagers navigating how to have “normal” human interaction by devising ridiculous plans that look like something out of a heist movie which is where the charm of this movie comes from. Neither of these two awkward teens know how to navigate “normal” interactions, so everything is unnecessarily blown way out of proportion. Their friendship genuinely grows without their active acknowledgment.

As far as the queer aspect of the film goes, it’s relatively subtle. Ellie clearly has feelings for Aster as the viewer can tell while listening to their letter correspondence and watching the various text exchange on screen. It’s framed as one of those infatuations where the other person “just gets you” sort of things. The Half of It does something that I really enjoyed, though – instead of Ellie putting a label to her feelings for Aster, the viewer watches her confidence change instead. It was much more powerful than Ellie putting words to how she identified.

The other aspect that the film handles is a white Germanic family and how they handle the possibility of someone being gay in their family. Paul is looking up what it means to be gay on the family computer after he suspects Ellie is but, being the not-so-smart jock that he is, doesn’t close the laptop or exit the browser when his mom asks him to go do something. His mother then sees the screen and you see her make a surprised face before the scene transitions into a new shot. Later – Paul’s mom tells him that she’ll love him no matter what and he explains that he isn’t gay but he wants to change her sausage recipe, which is apparently unforgivable because it causes the entire Munsky household to erupt in an argument while they’re all attending church. Sexual orientation is fine, but don’t touch that family sausage recipe because it is SACRED.

I enjoyed the film but there were areas where I wish the film had gone significantly deeper. There is surface level racism towards Ellie and her father for being Chinese but I never felt like it went far enough. I was more emotionally invested in how poorly po-dunky Squahamish, Washington (a fictional Pacific Northwest town) treated Ellie and her father and had far more questions surrounding their family circumstances than the film gave me answers to. Like what happened to Ellie’s mother? Ellie also mentioned how in love her father was with her mother and how he acted around her but I don’t recall her ever explaining those actions. So why specifically bring it up when you have two teens trying to figure out what love looks like if you’re not going to actively describe it?

There was also a very “artsy shot” of Ellie and Aster when they went on a spontaneous day trip that just didn’t mesh with the rest of the film. The scene leading up to the aforementioned shot was really good and provided some palpable tension, making me worried for Ellie and hesitant towards Aster and her intentions. But the tension was just that – tension. It didn’t go anywhere and helped build the underlying tension moving forward, which I liked and the story needed. But the “artsy” shot was an aerial view of Aster and Ellie in a natural hot spring just looking up at the sky while floating on their backs… it doesn’t sound significant but it was a fairly long shot and it took me out of the moment and almost erased the tension that had just been established because I was questioning why the scene was done in such a way and what the purpose was.

Even though the romance between any of the teens doesn’t pan out, watching the exchange between Ellie and Aster through letters and artwork was beautiful. One of my favorite scenes was the two of them exchanging strokes of paint on a mural outside to challenge one another. I kept thinking that not only was it a good exchange but that it was the absolute height of Ellie potentially being caught and Aster finding out that she wasn’t in fact talking with Paul the football player, but Ellie the quiet musician. I’m not sure if that was the intention of how the scene was edited but it was the effect that it had on me and it kept me engaged on multiple levels.

Although this story isn’t the teen romance that the trailer makes it out to be, it is clear that Ellie and Paul still find platonic love with each other as friends who have grown to understand and accept one another, and more importantly, self-love and confidence. In the long run, those things are just as important if not more important than romantic love, so for me this movie was a success. It is beyond charming, authentically funny, and has properly paced tension throughout. It’d definitely a film that I’ll happily watch again.

4 out of 5 Rainbows

Recommended Viewer: Anyone looking for a slightly nuanced take on high school romance stories or someone looking for a good story that won’t pull you in too hard emotionally.

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