In 2004, a film called Saving Face written and directed by Alice Wu came out. Telling the story of an Asian-American doctor who must learn to balance her life with her unwed pregnant mother and her dancer girlfriend. I was too young at the time to see it but once I discovered it as a teenager in the closet, I fell in love with it. I fell in love with Wu’s writing and directing. So waiting for her second film felt like ever, it felt like it would never come and then, Netflix announced that they would produce a film written and directed by Wu. To say that I have been anticipating The Half of It is an understatement. Alice Wu won my heart with her directorial debut, a film that had been able to win my heart and made me feel accepter. With The Half of It, she was capable of recreating those feelings that I had felt as a closeted teenager but she did it in a very unexpected way.
The Half of It is a modern adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac but that can be very loosely taken. Ellie Chu is a shy straight-A student who feels isolated and seems to have no friends in her town. Ellie makes extra money by writing essays for other students, she reluctantly agrees to help school jock Paul to write love letters to Aster Flores, who she also happens to be in love with. Paul, Ellie and Aster embark on a journey of self-discovery and must come to terms with their unexpected feelings.
The theme of the film is weaved into the story without you even realizing it. Even if Ellie tells us that this isn’t a love story, we’ve heard it before and it somehow turned into one, this is, after all, a young adult story so it must be about love. And yes, love is important and a main component of the film, but this is first and foremost a story about friendship. Love and friendship are intertwined in the story, they become one really. Paul, Aster and Ellie all become intertwined and tangled up together and their relationship is the drive of the movie. The story becomes about much more than just love, it becomes about becoming yourself and being true to yourself. Their friendships and relationships help all of them discover who they are and by the end of the film, they have all grown and changed for the better.
Wu’s script is able to weave in the insecurities and loneliness of all three of them in a way that feels real. All of them feel like their lives are not their own, forced to live their life to please their parents. Whether it’s Ellie staying in her town to help her dad who barely speaks English or Paul who must keep his recipes ideas for himself so that his family won’t get mad at him or Aster who must just follow the rules in order to please her father and his expectations for her. It’s typical of a young adult coming of age story but the story never feels like it has been told before. Yes, it’s another coming out story but Wu is capable of telling it without it feeling like it was told before. In the Cyrano de Bergerac play, Cyrano’s insecurity comes from his nose, in this telling Ellie’s come from her sexuality. From the first moment of the film, it’s never hidden that Ellie is gay, but no one around her notices. Even when Paul and her talk about Aster and what there is to like about her, he doesn’t even realize that she loves her too. This isn’t a coming-out story, far from it, but Wu places it like it’s a piece of a puzzle and it works.
Wu is capable of creating a world that feels lived in and real. The story might have been told before but she brings something fresh to it. The trio of Leah Lewis (Nancy Drew), Daniel Diemer (in his film debut) and Alexxis Lemire (in her film debut) shine in all of its moments, small or big. All three of them get their moments and all make their characters feel real. The friendships all feel real but they also all sell the love they feel for one another. Lewis is capable of selling her gay panic moments in a very genuine and youthful way, Diemer plays his boyish nice guy role with a youthfulness that feels new and exciting while Lemire’s mysterious and unapproachable Aster also feels broken, a duality that Lemire is capable of playing in a very convincing way. The chemistry between the trio is palpable and all combination of it works, whether it’s Aster with Paul, Paul with Ellie or Ellie with Aster, all of them feel real and unique.
In my eyes, The Half of It is the best young adult movie to ever hit Netflix. It has the feel of All The Boys I’ve Loved Before but the steady hand that Wu has brings it to another level. From the flow of the camera to the writing and then the editing, The Half of It never tries too hard. The relationships feel real, lived in. The way Wu is capable of telling you everything you need to know about what she is trying to say with just a few words is impressive. On my second viewing, I found myself finding little tidbits of messages that described so well the relationships and how coming to terms with yourself is more important than any love you can feel for someone. What I’ve come to realize all these years after is that through form of love stories, Wu is capable of telling so much more. With Saving Face, she was able to blend family and love in a unique way. With The Half of It she does it again but this time with friendship and love. It might not be the cute rom-com that some might have wanted but it’s the coming of age story we all deserved and should love.