We’ve all seen the trope. A shy nerd pretends to be a more popular person and writes to their love interest. A love triangle ensues, the nerd is torn between the secrecy and their feelings but some drama happens, truth is revealed and in the end, the nerd gets the girl (or guy). I’ve read this in countless books, seen this play out in movies and TV – the latest one to try – and fail, to be honest – was Sierra Burgess is a Loser. But the new Netflix original The Half of It takes the trope by the horns and subverts it into something else entirely. What used to be a cliche teen rom-com trope is rejuvenated in this heartwarming story about love and friendship that left me crying all over my screen in the middle of the night.
Director Alice Wu‘s The Half Of It begins with a prologue about soulmates, about finding your other half. We are introduced to Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a Chinese girl who lives in a house above a train station in a small town called Squahamish with her father. Ellie writes papers for her classmates for extra money, and when Paul Munsky – a rather oblivious yet kindhearted jock played by Daniel Diemer – enlists her help to write love letters to his crush Aster (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie finds both love and friendship in the people she least expected and stands to lose it all as things get slowly out of her control.
I am usually not a fan of the aforementioned trope. There’s so much secrecy, a little bit of catfishing and so many messy and hurt feelings that make me a little uncomfortable. But Alice Wu’s movie is so sensitive to the characters’ feelings that it never makes you feel that Aster is being blindsided. Leah Lewis plays Ellie with such vulnerability and transparency that the naked emotions and yearning on her face hit me like a thunderbolt every single time. I fell in love with Aster as Ellie did and understood every single of her actions, however desperate they might look on the outside.
The movie is a beautiful tale of coming out and coming of age, but in the heart of it all is a heartwarming friendship. The trailer mentions that not every love story is a romance, and I get it after watching the pure and wholesome friendship that blossoms between Paul and Ellie. Lesbian/Himbo friendship goals. I was ready to dislike or even ignore Paul, but was not prepared to love him as much as I did. If you loved duos like Robin/Steve (Stranger Things) and Sydney/Stanley (I’m not okay with this), Paul and Ellie will maneuver their way into your heart. These flawed and soft souls find a sweet friendship in each other that pushes them to grow, to be bold and to understand what they really want from their lives. I haven’t realized how much I’ve wanted such a platonic relationship where both characters exist on the same page and love each other without condition.
But that doesn’t mean that the romance is sidelined. Ellie slowly blossoms into her feelings even when it’s apparent that the secrecy is taking a toll on her. The back and forth between Ellie (in the guise of Paul) and Aster consists of references of Wim Wenders, bold paintings and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit philosophy. The kind of conversation that would have made me roll my eyes in a John Green book actually works between these two girls of color whose dreams and ideas are too big for the small town that surrounds them. These two have such a sweet chemistry, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but there was an innocent yet adorably tense scene that had me grinning like a fool,
I said I cried, but the movie isn’t a melancholic musing of yearning and repressed sexuality. There are so many scenes where I laughed out loud – even the tensest moments often lend a little leeway for a smile. Alice Wu lingers on the happy moments, the ridiculous scenes and painful awkwardness, because that’s part and parcel of teen life. But she doesn’t shy away from small-town racism, the microaggressions, the lost dreams of Ellie’s father (who has a PhD from China but has resorted to be a train station operator because he doesn’t have a good command of English), the blissful privilege in which most of Ellie’s classmates live and the underlying thread of religion that hangs over the entire movie. But they never overpower Ellie’s personal journey, because ultimately The Half Of It doesn’t have to establish Ellie’s pain for us to root for her. From the first moment we meet her, we are already her cheerleaders, just as Paul becomes once he befriends her.
In the midst of so many run of the mill teen movies that say the same old story of white middle class urban “struggles” and angst, The Half Of It is so special and important. The story is so simple and understated yet the emotions it induces are anything but. Alice Wu made me cry and laugh and cry again, and I can guarantee that by the end of the movie, these characters will become and dear and near to your heart, and saying goodbye to them made me feel like I have lost something, lost the kind of sweet love that I was experiencing along with Ellie.