Ellie Chu, somewhere in the middle of a sweet movie about love, high school and everything in between, tells the viewers that she agrees with Sartre: Hell truly is other people. Funnily enough, over the next almost two hours, she finds out that Heaven is a little bit of people too.
The Half of It, a Cyrano de Bergerac-esqe take on a high school movie, is a wholesome 1 hour and 45 minutes filled with queer longing, strange friendships and hilarious misunderstandings. Ellie is a nerdy teenager who lives with her perennially-dressed-in-a-bathrobe father and earns some extra cash on the side by writing school essays for her classmates. The story begins when she is approached by lovable jock Paul to write a love letter on his behalf to the girl that he likes. The girl that he likes? Aster Flores. Beautiful, smart, unattainable. Also, the girl who doesn’t notice Ellie throwing her longing looks from across the room. One letter turns into two, then many, and before you can say “Gay yearning”, Ellie is falling for Aster, who has no idea that she’s behind the beautiful words she gets sent every day. Of course, it is meant to implode. And it does.
It is a love story, just not in the way that you’d think. More than Paul and Aster, or Ellie and Aster, the pivotal relationship in the movie is Paul and Ellie’s. A transactional partnership somehow grows into a sweet, unlikely friendship, and it is one of the most beautiful things ever to watch. The movie delves into how what we see on the surface isn’t really all. Paul, who starts the movie by seeming like just another flaky, dumb jock transforms into a real person with real hopes, dreams, and mistakes. And Ellie, who has determined, as the movie repeatedly lets us know, that she’s never going to find people who get her, starts to find out that not everyone fits into the mould they have been forced into at the beginning of high school.
A recurring theme in the movie, in my opinion, was the simple act of seeing and loving people. None of the characters feel like they are seen, and over the course of the movies, find new ways of “seeing” the people they love. Paul sees Aster as smart, and beautiful and kind. Ellie sees the deepest parts of Aster. Still, because there is always a screen between them, it feels like even she is not privy to all of her, which is why she, as well, is drawn to the idea of Aster as this perfect, glorious angel. Neither of the two really see her, which is sort of the point, I believe. By the end of the movie, most people have had a better idea of each other. Ellie’s father sees her a little better; Paul and Ellie come to an understanding. However, Aster is still not completely clear to the audience as a character, because most of the movie, we see her through the eyes of either Paul or Ellie.
Alice Wu, who makes a return to the world of writing and directing after fan-favourite “Saving Face” says that she deliberately wanted to set this story in a small town, because she had been researching about Trump and wanted to reach people in the red states, wanted to hope it might make them think twice about immigrant families or queer kids. In my very humble opinion, I think she does a great job. The dialogues are funny, and she’s captured the voice of a teenager stuck in a small town perfectly. As far as Netflix Young Adult movies go, this one more than hits the mark.
Let’s talk a little bit about the actors. Leah Lewis who plays Ellie is extremely expressive and portrays most of her longing through her eyes. Daniel Diemer as Paul Munsky brings an earnestness to his role that is a delight to watch. And Alexxis Lemire acts the part of someone who is just longing to be known with expertise. Another noteworthy character is Collin Chou as Ellie’s grieving lost father, who brings a depth to silence as only experienced actors can.
Now, of course, is the movie absolutely perfect? No, it is not. There are a few flaws, like Paul coming to terms with his homophobia in a matter of minutes, and the ending scene comes a little too abruptly, but on the whole, The Half of It is a wonderful attempt, and execution of a sweet YA story, and definitely what queer people deserve.
To say this is giving the gays all they want is an understatement. For me, personally, someone who grew up deprived of gay content, whose initial forays into discovering my sexuality at the impressionable age of 13, included watching scenes of Saving Face over and over again in private, this means a lot. For any queer kid who grew up looking, and failing to find, representations of themselves in media, this movie is an admittedly late but very welcome step in the right direction. Here’s to hoping this is just the beginning of a trend that includes more and more queer content in online platforms.
I’d like to conclude by agreeing with Ellie Chu as she says at the beginning of the movie “This is not a love story.” She’s right. It’s so, so much more than that.