At first glance, Alice Wu’s The Half of It looks to be a cute teen romance about a young girl who, after a series of mishaps, expresses her love and adoration for the girl of her dreams. While the film is about that, it is also a deeply resonant tale of the friendships that help shape who we are meant to be.
In The Half of It, we follow book smart Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) who is isolated and friendless in the remote town of Squahamish. Chu is shy and reserved but has a booming business of writing her fellow students’ assignments, which inspires dumb school jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) to seek out her services to write love letters for the daughter of the town’s minister, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Little do either know that this endeavour will change the course of their lives, and will open themselves up to new possibilities. However, the great love story here is the love between friends.
Loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the story follows Ellie’s transformation from doubting herself and limiting her options to being more confident in herself and assured in her future prospects. It is through her friendship with Paul that these changes occur and her secret correspondence with Aster that helps Ellie realise how her life and her father’s (Collin Chou), have been stalled by unforeseen circumstances, and the not so subtle racism of her backwater town and country. The number of times Ellie is referred to as “the Chinese girl” will certainly have you grinding your teeth. But, the story isn’t about Ellie’s town or her circumstances, rather it is a tale of looking within yourself and discovering a part of you that is buried by doubt and fear.
Wu’s delicate portrayal of the intimacy of the various relationships in one’s life is not surprising considering her sensitive and moving first feature, Saving Face. The character development and the attention to detail in regards to Ellie’s personal relationships are so beautifully realised, that whether she wins Aster’s heart at the end or not really doesn’t matter. The personal transformation Ellie undergoes with the help of Paul’s friendship is the beating heart of this film. This all hinges upon the relatability of Ellie and thankfully Lewis is not only up for the task, but puts on a nuanced performance that will surely melt your heart.
The film is also beautifully shot and staged in a way that emphasises the isolation felt by our central characters, and the closeness they develop over time. Cinematographer Greta Zozula and composer Anton Sanko add to Wu’s vision by creating a fully realised atmosphere that our characters inhabit. Zozula’s work, in particular, should be noted as she does an incredible job in giving us both the coldness of Ellie’s loneliness, and the warmth of Ellie’s growth through various visuals. Together with Wu’s assured hand behind the camera, what comes together is a stellar showcase of how effective minimalism is in a story about such an intimate journey.
Wu has given us two incredible feature narratives about love and its various forms. The Half of It is a sensitive portrait of a young girl’s self-discovery through love and friendship. Led by an impressive ensemble of performers in front of the camera and a brilliant team behind it, The Half of It will surely leave its mark on the teen drama landscape. It will make you laugh, cry, and reach out to those who have had a hand in bettering your life.
The Half of It is available to stream on Netflix on May 1st
by Ferdosa Abdi