For some inexplicable reason, a whole fifteen years has passed between Alice Wu’s directorial debut (Saving Face – a bold and excellent indie which everyone should seek out straight away) and her follow up film, The Half of It, released on Netflix last week. In a way, both films deal with very similar themes – the second generation immigrant experience (specifically Chinese-American), difficult familial relationships, issues surrounding class and – perhaps above all else – queer protgaonists who are struggling in some way with their own sexuality, or coming out to those around them. Unlike Saving Face, however, The Half of It roots itself firmly in the high school drama genre, and though protagonist Ellie Chu informs us right away that this ‘is not a love story’, The Half of It definitely has that crushing, dramatic teen-romance at its heart throbbing core.
A high school student living in the truly fictional sounding Squahamish, Ellie lives with her father on the poorer side of town, atop a hill she struggles to cycle up every day whilst the rich car-owning school kids jeer at her. Her isolation from the other school kids is made clear early on – she doesn’t seem to have friends, rather a line of ‘customers’, other pupils who pay her to write their school papers. Early in the film, she’s approached by Paul, a student, who asks her to help him write a love letter to a girl in their class – Aster Flores. Ellie, though she initially declines to get involved, is revealed to have a secret of her own. She might just have fallen for Aster too.
It is true that The Half of It’s plotline feels half borrowed by several other mistaken identity/love triangle type teen romance films that have come out in the past few years, most of them obviously riffing on Cyrano De Bergerac (Sierra Burgess is a Loser, also a Netflix film, feels eerily similar). However, despite treading familiar ground, Wu’s film is stronger in it’s convictions and goes far beyond the usual conventions and tropes of the high-school genre to firmly plant it’s feet on new ground. It’s comparable to Kelly Fremon Craig’s Edge of Seventeen – both films of the high school genre which treat their young characters with respect, not belittling their desires or struggles.
As the title suggests, Ellie’s world is made up of halves. She’s stuck between her ambition and her desire to help her father who, though highly skilled, is unable to find fulfilling work in their small town. She’s a fantastic communicator, evidenced by the A+ papers she writes for her classmates, but she is distinctly lacking in any friends of her own to talk with. The popular kids in school are rich and privileged, whereas Ellie struggles financially – something that she has in common with Paul who comes from a disadvantaged background, not to mention a chaotic household. Their friendship is the real emotional high of the film and proof that not every high school teen movie needs to end with a boy and girl walking off into the sunset together, or (perhaps more commonly) dancing together at prom.
The Half of It bucks these trends in favour of a subtler approach, and is all the better for it. Ellie is an authentic teenager, awkward and frustrated – a superb performance from newcomer Leah Lewis coupled with an excellent script from Wu. Ellie, Aster and, yes, even Paul, are smart in ways that adults do not generally imagine teenagers can be – the inclusion of philosophical ideologies and quotes on love remind us that young people feel things so very deeply. And for 1 hour and 44 minutes, we do too.