the half of it
Film, 2020, 3.5 stars
Written and Directed by: Alice Wu
The quest for a truly great queer film for teenagers continues - this is an excellent entrant to the category, but it isn’t without its issues, both in terms of script and overall message.
Just like other classic-novel-to-teen-fims before it such as Clueless, Cruel Intentions, or Ten Things I Hate About You (riffing off “Emma”, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and the “Taming of the Shrew” respectively), this is a timeless story that has once again found the light of day into a format that young people can digest and relate to all over again. With The Half of It, Alice Wu has reinvented “Cyrano De Bergerac”, one of the most romantic stories ever told.
The ultimate message here, that maybe there isn’t one “true” other half of your soul, maybe love comes in a myriad of forms and we should accept it and cherish it where it exists, is a lovely one. How we get there, through deception and minimising another person’s agency, is more problematic, especially when the story is translated into today’s world of internet bullying and catfishing.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a fitting, feisty heroine. In every Cyrano adaptation the hero has been charming, witty, intelligent to a fault, with a large chip on their shoulder because they are compensating for something. Cyrano always has a physical flaw that makes him an outcast, usually a large misshapen nose. Ellie doesn’t have some alarming facial feature, but she does suffer from something that is much more debilitating as a teenager - crippling social shyness.
She’s also the only Asian girl in a small town, and very poor because her grieving father has a menial job as the local station master and spends all his time watching old movies and grieving Ellie’s mother, who died tragically when Ellie was young.
Ellie is incredibly smart and makes money by writing half of the papers that get submitted by her classmates. A very sweet jock named Paul (Daniel Diemer) approaches her one day and asks to pay for help in writing a love letter to Aster, the prettiest girl in school, something that Ellie initially refuses, but takes on in desperation because she needs the money.
The pretty girl in question is the lovely Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the smart daughter of the local preacher, destined for an early marriage to the son of the richest family in town. She’s frustrated and harbours dreams of being an artist. Hijinks ensue as Ellie and Paul’s deception kicks in when Ellie uses her pent up desires, loneliness, and fierce intelligence to woo the girl on behalf of the hapless, bumbling Paul.
Ellie has another secret - she’s crushing on Aster too. The text messages exchanged between Aster and Ellie reveal that they’re more alike than either would ever have known. The problem is that it’s desperately wrong. It takes Ellie and Paul the whole movie to realise how wrong it is, while working through their own complicated, growing friendship. Ellie, who has never had a close relationship to anyone other than her grieving father and dead mother suddenly has two, and doesn’t really know what to do with either.
Aster is only allowed to become interesting halfway through the film, something I think Wu got a bit wrong. I think it would have been more powerful to understand her more from the beginning. She’s such an artistic, intelligent soul. She’s searching for hope, and sees the communications from Ellie/Paul as a lifeline. Having been told that there was a twist in the end of the film, I was almost expecting Wu to take the story in a darker direction than she did once Aster discovered the truth, but that was not the case.
There are many cringeworthy moments that are tough to sit through. The dates between Aster and Paul are unwatchable trainwrecks. Scenes where Aster’s appalling friends and boyfriend are just being themselves are almost too grotesque to actually be funny. The scenes between Ellie and Paul make the film shine though, as they realise how each can be made better by relying on the other’s strengths.
The last third of the film is a troubled mess. Yes, there are some truly sweet moments you can’t help but respond to, but it tumbles too fast towards a conclusion that telegraphs itself from about halfway through the film. It felt like the characters didn’t do what they did because it was right, they did it because the film was ending and we needed them to have some kind of resolution.
It isn’t the message-rich ending we really need. I don’t believe Ellie truly understands in the end how awful her actions were, and Aster isn’t really given the chance to express their devastating impact. There needs to be a moral force here, either the well-meaning teacher who urges Ellie to go to college (the thoroughly wasted Becky Ann Baker), or her Dad, or even Aster herself. Someone needs to hammer home that this was a mistake and it was understandable and Ellie was still a good person, but it was not OK. Like everything else, Ellie is left to get there on her own, and I found that desperately sad.
Ellie is a wonderful character though. She’s warm, and tough but fragile, and so smart it hurts. Her experiences with both Paul and Aster have helped her take those tiny steps out of herself into the world to become a complete, rich person, without changing who she fundamentally is. Ultimately it’s a satisfying, sweet, if slightly hollow send off.