‘The Half of It’ is a Captivating Fresh Take on the Coming-of-Age Genre – Review
Netflix has no shortage of rom-coms, teen movies, or coming-of-age stories on its platform. But Alice Wu, director The Half of It, takes those known genres and subverts it into something new as we explore the path and journey of one Ellie Chu.
From this point forward, this review will contain spoilers for Netflix’s The Half of It.
“The good thing about being different in a town like this is that no one expects you to be like them.”
Meet Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), an unlikely protagonist. In fact, it’s clear that even she doesn’t believe she’s the main character of this story but is instead a side character, content to fade into the background. She’s a 17-year-old living in a fictional town known as Squahamish with her father. High school for her has its problems as she endures bullying from her peers while also running an underground business of writing essays for her classmates. For many, high school is ruthless: people pick on every little thing that makes you different. For Ellie, she embodies a lot of these qualities that set her apart from the fact that she’s an immigrant, to her social standing of being a little awkward and quiet. Not to mention, she’s totally in love with the queen of the high school, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Suffice it to say, Ellie believes she’s invisible to those at school and that’s fine by her.
As the movie starts, we dive into a parable of people finding their other half in order to become whole, and it’s this search that carries through the entire movie. The theme of longing sets audiences up for what we think is going to be this romantic love story, but by the time I finished the movie, we’ve experienced so many kinds of love. We get the sense that Ellie doesn’t really know much about love, especially when she hesitates in a conversation with Paul (Daniel Diemer) about it. And as their friendship grows, we’re quick to see that they experience and feel love quite differently. Whereas Paul claims he loves Aster because she’s essentially smart and beautiful and kind, Ellie describes all the little details she’s noticed about Aster – like the way she looks at you in the eye or how she speaks with different voices.
All the while, Ellie has to deal with her life in Squahamish. The colors used throughout the film, especially in the beginning, conveys a status of stasis. Everything feels static as though a routine has been created and cannot be broken. It’s like Ellie’s whole life has been frozen in place in Squahamish where she’s expected to be invisible, pass her classes, help her dad at home and with his work, and ultimately stay there forever. Because of that, large portions of the movie feels very slow, but in a way that made me try to pay attention to all the things that weren’t being said or explicitly conveyed.
I do have to admit that I personally disliked both Paul and Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz). Paul really is a sweet person throughout the movie and has good intentions, but he and Trig both like Aster for superficial reasons: that she’s pretty, smart, and kind. I get that Paul was supposed to be the sweet, good-hearted idiot jock, but I personally could not stand the character, especially with the way he kissed Ellie. And Paul clearly has so little chemistry with Aster to the point where it was incredibly difficult for me to watch the two of them interact. Obviously, it’s because Ellie is the one who is talking to Aster and not Paul.
Of course, we have to talk about the water scene – probably one of the most intimate scenes I have experienced. There is so much that is shared between Ellie and Aster, but most of that understanding comes from silence and glances. This is probably the most vulnerable we ever get to see with Ellie. Here, both Aster and Ellie are able to shed apart the versions of themselves that they so often have to present to others and the outside world; shed the social responsibilities they owe to their families that have been put onto them. Instead, they’re able to exist and be their true selves in their most intimate, vulnerable states in quiet understanding.
For a moment, I want to dive into Ellie’s heritage. They easily converse in Mandarin, or at least Ellie does to her father, whereas he expresses insecurity about speaking English with an accent. Not only that, there are little tidbits scattered throughout the movie that reminds us that Ellie and her father are Chinese Americans. I’d argue that the movie doesn’t focus a lot on their culture, but it didn’t completely wipe away their heritage. Casually dropping Yakult into the movie as a beverage of choice made me so happy. It’s a preferred drink of choice for many young Asian Americans (I know it is for me). I love seeing these little details in Ellie’s kitchen that shows how unapologetically Chinese she and her dad are.
From the picture above, we see various condiments and bowls on the left that look exactly like the sort I’ve used before in my own home. Then on the right is an altar for Ellie’s mother who passed away with offerings which is a Chinese tradition to honor those we love who have passed. But here, there exists a father-daughter love that is expressed through subtle actions. From my experience, many Asian families don’t express public displays of affection, but it’s clear that Ellie loves her father and he cares for her in return. It’s the fact that Ellie seemingly has taken over as the head of the household after her mother’s death that left her father in a prolonged state of mourning.
The ending of The Half of It was interesting. Personally, I liked the way the conclusion. I liked that neither Trig nor Paul “get” Aster – neither of them truly understood her and she also does not choose either of them. She also does not exactly end up with Ellie either, but at least they have a shared understanding of each other’s souls. Like I said in the beginning, Ellie has experienced love – albeit not necessarily the one we initially expected. She comes to terms with her feelings for Aster, but she also finds love in her friendship with Paul as well as an evolving love with her father. But most of all, Ellie grows into self-love as she finally pulls herself away from the sidelines and into the protagonist role of her own life.
“Love isn’t patient, and kind, and humble. Love is messy, and horrible, and selfish, and bold. It’s not finding your perfect half. It’s the trying, and reaching, and failing.”
Alice Wu has created a masterpiece with The Half of It. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the other characters in the film, Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire as Ellie and Aster respectively, are soft and dynamic in their dynamic together. I would give my whole heart for Ellie, Aster, and Ellie’s dad. The intimacy from each character conveys so much understanding, longing, and trying. While I personally would not rewatch the film any time soon, as a whole, The Half of It is beautiful, stirring, and emotional, and certainly worth a watch.
The Half of It is streaming now on Netflix.