Chinese-American filmmaker Alice Wu uses film as a personal creative outlet, as seen in her much-lauded debut Saving Face (2004). Wu masterfully wields the weapon of self-expression yet again in her latest work, coming-of-age dramedy The Half of It. The Netflix-produced and -distributed film is inspired by Wu’s personal experiences living as a lesbian Asian woman in small, white-dominated towns.
The Half of It is about a shy Asian-American teenager named Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) who ghostwrites love letters for Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) in order to woo the pretty, popular Aster Flores (Alexxis Liemere). While embarking on their own personal journeys, the characters find connections to each other in various ways.
The film is loosely based on Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand’s 19th century play about an eloquent but unattractive man helping a handsome but uninspired man woo a beautiful woman, Roxane, whom they both develop feelings for. In Wu’s version, her protagonist, Ellie, has to hide the fact that she secretly has a crush on the object of Paul’s affection, Aster, while helping him write love letters to her.
In addition to Cyrano/Ellie’s fear of their crushes refusing to reciprocate their feelings if she knew who was really behind the love letters, Wu takes it up a notch by with the extra layer of whether the well-regarded, well-liked Aster would even be able to develop and reciprocate romantic interest in a girl.
The film is set in Squahamish, a white-dominated town in Washington. Ellie and her father maintain their Chinese roots, speaking mostly in Mandarin to each other in the house. Actress Leah Lewis didn’t come from a Chinese background, having been adopted from a Shanghai orphanage as a baby and raised in Florida, but she and her character Ellie had very similar experiences growing up. “There wasn’t that large of an Asian community [in my hometown] for me to explore that part of myself and feel accepted in that aspect. Similarly with Ellie, as far as we know, her family is kind of the only Chinese family in Squahamish,” she shares.
The touches of Chinese culture woven throughout the film, such as dumpling-making or the (very understandable) excitement over Yakult, were soft and organic, as much a part of who Ellie was as her incredible intelligence or her fear of socializing. Ellie calling customer service lines for her father just because he didn’t want to speak English to whoever was on the other end of the line was a markedly child-of-immigrants display.
Writer-director Wu drew on her personal experiences in high school for inspiration for the film, stating that her first heartbreak wasn’t from a girl, but from a straight white guy. “But sometimes you meet someone and for whatever reasons, your ‘weird’ worked together,” she said, going on to describe her difficulty coming to grips with her friend’s new girlfriend’s wariness of their shared emotional intimacy, despite understanding that there was nothing physical or sexual between them.
The Half of It does a beautiful job touching on different kinds from love. The film goes deep into the gradual development of Paul and Ellie’s friendship. The two start off as distant acquaintances, with unabashed reluctance and avoidance on Ellie’s part, but carefully builds a heartwarming intimacy between them as they put their heads together to figure how to reach Aster. Familial love is also a big theme, taking on different shapes and forms in all three of the main characters’ families and homes.
What this film does for queer womxn representation is phenomenal. The accuracy of having a secret crush in high school is something that anyone can relate to, from both Ellie’s and Paul’s perspectives. It captures the messiness of falling in love with someone and learning what love is through the turbulent, hazy eyes of adolescence.
The chemistry between Lewis and Liemere is authentic, most notably in the scene where Ellie and Aster are in the hot spring together. The two share no physical contact, and yet the scene feels so very intimate.
“I am a stubborn filmmaker in that I have a very strong point of view. And I hold to it. It’s not that I think I’m right; it’s just that this is the thing I’m making. It’s just gotten a lot easier because I don’t have to spend a bunch of time explaining to people why the lead being Asian American and queer is important.”
Alice Wu for NewNowNext
The cinematography and the writing feels like one is reading a YA book instead of watching a movie. It’s a style of filmmaking that should’ve been incorporated into other YA adaptations such as Looking for Alaska—with no effort at big cinematic displays, but with a smaller but more focused, detailed scope. The film is rife with symbolic detail, like the painting of a daisy Ellie paints for Aster (which is then given to her by Paul)—the daisy is Freya’s sacred flower, a goddess of love.
Wu evidently put a lot of care into crafting this film. It has all the components of a YA novel: symbolism, crushes and charismatic characters, and delivers them through amazing writing, purposeful cinematography and measured performances. It’s a deeply personal story written and presented in a new light, one I hope more makers of YA content endeavour to employ from now on.
Edited by Melissa Lee