Directed by #AliceWu
Written by #AliceWu
Writer and Director Alice Wu has returned to our screens with her latest film The Half of It.
Protagonist Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a teenager living a repetitive and quiet existence with her father. Being Chinese-American, she is shown to be an outsider in small-town America with no one she can relate to. Then, she encounters the sweet yet inarticulate Paul (Daniel Diemer) who pays her to write a love letter to widely-liked Aster (Alexxis Lemire), as he has has feelings for her that he cannot articulate. Once Ellie accepts Paul’s offer, everything becomes more complicated and Ellie questions whether or not she wants her own romance with Aster.
This new Netflix film arrives sixteen years after the premiere of Wu’s first film, Saving Face, which features young Chinese-American woman Wil trying to navigate life within her Chinese community. She seeks to support and accommodate her traditional mother, whilst simultaneously falling in love with a woman. Wu as the writer and director of this film delicately tackled taboo in a completely original way – by exploring her audience to explore characters that are beautifully witty and boldly romantic.
The Half of It echoes this in that it too comments on what it is like to be a Chinese-American woman, particularly when dealing with societal issues such as sexuality and self-expectation. Wil’s journey from being afraid to be vocal, to not caring about what others will think of her is an incredibly heart-warming watch, and we see a younger version of this within Ellie. As a teenager, Ellie is reserved with her emotions but flourishes with her writing and Leah Lewis captures this perfectly in her acting with subtle smiles whenever she is texting or writing to Aster.
The film itself is beautiful. Crafted with gentle cinematography that is interwoven with metaphors and messages for the audience to analyse and enjoy. Each character using bright colours, from creating a wall mural to their clothing to finding a beautiful hot spring, hits against the edges of the small, grey town that they exist within. What the audience realises is that this isn’t written to be a love story, but the chemistry between Lewis and co-star Alexxis Lemire is still palpable, with this very visual depiction of Ellie and Aster’s friendship and the sweetness of it as it develops. Lewis creates a very relatable character out of Wu’s script and completely captures the essence of a girl getting her first real crush on another girl for the first time. Everyone, regardless of their sexuality, wants to give this girl a huge hug. Wu has written Ellie in a way that she is accessible for a wide audience, with her difference also being celebrated. She grows to be self-aware within this and longs to explore her identity and the world outside of small town Squahamish.
Wu wrote Saving Face when not a lot of positive lesbian characters and romances were being portrayed positively, or even with a happy ending. This was one of the first queer films to defy expectations and it tells a beautiful love story with real challenges. The Half of It amplifies this legacy in a contemporary context, where more and more uplifting LGBTQ+ narratives are being portrayed authentically. With this new film also being made in a post-Trump world, it is increasingly important that these stories are told and this is recognised in the script.
This is why Ellie and Paul’s friendship feels so good to watch as it develops. Both have a lot of unsaid dialogue in subtle movements and short sentence bursts that indicate a deep-growing friendship. Ellie’s articulateness contrasts heavily with Paul’s broken syntax but their ability to communicate despite this is a real drawing point to the film. Despite his awkwardness, Paul is immediately kind and upfront around Ellie, which is particularly proven when he objects to others' casual racism. The more Ellie helps him in dating Aster, the more they both realise that she shouldn’t be the focus, but that a unique friendship between them has been born. Paul’s honesty about not understanding Ellie’s sexuality is developed unpredictably by the tenderness that he displays in teaching himself out of his learned prejudice. His value for Ellie and her friendship is the true message of this film.
Alice Wu once again captures perfectly with Ellie’s story that being an ‘out-and-proud’ lesbian doesn’t have to be a huge and public declaration – but instead begins from within yourself. The subtlety of Ellie not uttering the words “I’m gay” is so significant because she, Paul and Aster are still discovering themselves. In just daring to consider the wider world outside of their small religious town, they are growing and changing. To say that this film is simply a rom-com does it some disservice.
I watched Saving Face as a teenager and The Half of It as an adult. It is an exciting prospect to me that queer teenagers growing up now will potentially watch these films the other way around. Wu's film really cements that the world is changing and people are growing in ways that they couldn’t grow fifteen/twenty years ago with regards to sexuality on screen.
It is wonderful to see Alice Wu making films again at a time where she can be even more appreciated for her talent as a writer and director. The Half of It is streaming now on Netflix and is well worth the watch.