‘The Half of It’ is a beautifully bold stroke and the love story we’ve been longing for

by Chloe Jung | 5/11/20 3:00am

On May 1, Netflix released Alice Wu’s “The Half of It,” a film that follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) as she navigates love and personal identity as an Asian American teenager. “The Half of It” transforms the common teen romance narrative into a funny, relatable and heartwarming work of art by pushing the boundaries of representation in mainstream romantic comedies.

In high school, Ellie earns money by writing other students’ essays to help support herself and her widowed father. As the only Chinese girl in the small, fictional town of Squahamish, Washington, Ellie is subject to constant teasing by her white peers, who call her “Chu Chu.”

When another student, football player Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), asks her to write him a love letter for his crush, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie reluctantly agrees. Over time, Ellie and Paul develop an unlikely friendship, despite the fact that Ellie secretly has feelings for Aster. Ellie continues to fall in love with Aster as they communicate through the letters.

A critical aspect of this film is its ability to speak to a larger audience. The film’s main characters look, talk and act like high school students, but each character is written with depth and complexity. Paul struggles in school, but he is a kind-hearted and loyal son who dutifully looks after his family's business despite wanting to start his own. Aster is a conformist who struggles to find her own identity after adapting herself to fit in with others, compromising her love of painting in the process. Writing in a letter that “the difference between a good painting and a great painting is the five boldest strokes,” she confesses that her fear of “ruining everything” has limited her from taking risks.

“The Half of It” explores the intersections of different identities, particularly through Ellie’s character. On the one hand, she is a Chinese American immigrant finding her place in a predominantly white town. At the same time, she is a closeted lesbian seeking love in a strongly religious community. However, Ellie isn’t defined by any one of her identities, and her story doesn’t revolve around them. “The Half of It” does a wonderful job of incorporating her identities into the story and touching on their importance without tokenizing her character or limiting her to particular stereotypes. 

Throughout the film, the characters and their relationships experience steady growth. The story’s most touching progression is the budding friendship between Paul and Ellie. Between scenes of him chasing her bullies, making her dinner and encouraging her to sing during the talent show, Paul develops greater sensitivity and understanding for others. While Ellie tends to close herself off emotionally, she becomes more open with Paul. As she exposes him to literature, sends his recipes to food critics and comforts him about Aster, Ellie learns to care for other people besides herself and her father. In a crucial scene where Paul discovers Ellie’s feelings for Aster, he calls her sexuality a sin. Later, we actually see Paul taking the initiative to educate himself about the LGBTQ community after realizing the harm he caused.

Aster too matures beyond her passive nature. At a pivotal moment in the film, Ellie presses Aster on her complacency, saying,  “Love is being willing to ruin your good painting for the chance at a great one — Is this really the boldest stroke you can make?” This question speaks to a central motif of “The Half of It.” Throughout the film, we see three young adults struggling and maturing, trying to make sense of who they are and what love really is. As they each learn to paint their uniquely bold strokes, Wu encourages her audience to live truthfully and apologetically.

Wu’s characters are awkward, lonely, confused and still figuring themselves out. They’re grappling with multiple identities while trying to understand what it means to “love.” They are unique yet strikingly relatable and realistic — something that many other teen romantic comedies fail to achieve. “The Half of It” flourishes where films like “The Kissing Booth” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” struggle. “The Half of It” doesn’t glorify, sugarcoat or romanticize, and it doesn’t present an idealized picture of love; it roots itself in reality, and that resonates with its audience.

The message is clear: Love is messy, but be bold. Love comes from the effort we put in, not the perfect half we hope to find. With a genuine male-female friendship, two strong female leads and a same-sex interracial pairing, “The Half of It” offers a more progressive model for LGBTQ and Asian American representation in film. It gives us something new and fresh, but at the same time warm and familiar. And it does so without relying on tropes like the “white male savior complex” and the “tragic LGBTQ ending.” For LGBTQ Asian Americans, “The Half of It” is a step forward toward greater visibility and positive representation.

With a refreshingly bold stroke, “The Half of It” shows us the unquestionable difference between a good film and a great one.