“This is not a love story.” So The Half of It warns us early on, but it’s easy to be lulled into complacency by the familiar tropes that Alice Wu‘s teenage rom-com wields. A modern-day riff on Cyrano de Bergerac — the classic Edmond Rostand play that follows an intelligent man with an “ugly” nose who woos a woman through a more handsome suitor — The Half Of It presents itself as a cute LGBTQ twist on an age-old rom-com narrative: Guy asks girl to write a love letter to popular girl, girl falls in love with popular girl, everyone lives happily ever after. But unexpectedly, The Half Of It becomes something far deeper and more interesting.
There’s a double meaning to the title The Half Of It — it of course refers to the commonly used phrase, which Leah Lewis‘ bookish teen Ellie Chu utters at one point in the film — but it mostly has to do with the concept of soulmates. The Platonic myth of soulmates, to be specific, as depicted in the whimsical opening animated sequence of The Half Of It. Stick figures on flying scraps of paper split in half and are tragically separated as Ellie Chu narrates the myth depicted in Plato’s “Symposium”: every person was actually one half of a whole soul, split into two at inception and separated, fated to search their entire lives for their other halves. It’s a romantic notion that the greatest poets and love sonnets have frequently referred to — how wonderful is the idea that someone exists out there who is made from the same cloth as you?
But Ellie Chu has no time for these kind of romantic notions. The lone Chinese teenager in the small, Christian town of Squahamish — the only other Chinese person is her dad, who has secluded himself in their house watching reruns of classic films, when he’s not working at the town’s lone, dinghy train station — Ellie supplements her father’s meager income by selling essays to her classmates. It’s a good, well-oiled system; Ellie writes four or five different essays for a class, and hands them out during band practice, as easily as notes were once passed in classrooms. Wu adds the nice touch of the students chuckling about the latest Instagram drama while passing Ellie’s essays to each other, adding some dramatic energy that recalls the note-passing days of old. There is an old-fashioned feeling to The Half Of It, which presupposes that teens still write love letters to each other. But in the forgotten backwater town of Squahamish, which feels frozen in time to the indie teen dramedies of the ’90s, the premise of this movie doesn’t feel out of date.
Ellie Chu is the kind of girl who puts her head down and powers her way through life — through her dad’s quiet shuffling that has become commonplace since her mother died, through her bike rides home from school as kids drive by and taunt her with yells of “Chugga Chu Chu!”, through her teacher’s (Becky Ann Baker) kind suggestions that she apply for college far away from here. Her head is so far down that she nearly doesn’t notice when sweet, bumbling jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) runs up to her to ask if she’ll write a love letter to the prettiest girl in school, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Perplexed by the request at first, Ellie is worn down by Paul’s sweet, romantic, if a bit dumb, nature, and agrees. It helps that she too has a burgeoning crush on Aster — one of the few fellow minorities in their small town, and the only girl in school who also reads Walt Whitman for fun.
The rom-com conceit of this movie plays out differently than expected. As Ellie pens flowery love letters to Aster for Paul, who doesn’t understand half of what she writes, The Half Of It takes on a contemplative rhythm, as the two girls ponder their own feelings of being outsiders in the tight-knit Christian town. It’s a surprisingly slow-burning start for a teen romantic-comedy, especially one hailing from Netflix, which churns out cutesy rom-coms by the dozens. While The Half Of It does indulge in your typically fun teen shenanigans — it at one point transforms into a buddy comedy where Ellie pulls a Pygmalion on Paul to turn him into the intellectual that she’s invented in her letters — The Half Of It isn’t as interested in building up the romance between its characters. Instead, it lets you live with them in this grungy, working class town that they’ve known all their lives and fear that they’ll be stuck in forever. It becomes clear that The Half Of It is less a rom-com than a coming-of-age story, as Ellie, Paul, and even Aster try to break out of the roles that have been set for them to play.
The Half Of It dwells on the idea of loneliness, in all its different forms. In some ways, you could say that it offers a bit of an easy fix for loneliness: connection with others. But that connection isn’t necessarily romantic. The Half Of It is the rare rom-com that actually upholds the idea of platonic soulmates — feeling a kinship with someone that’s so strong, and so powerful, it doesn’t need to be romantic. Romance isn’t the be-all-end-all of love, The Half Of It argues, and platonic love can be even stronger than romantic love.
The platonic love story between Ellie and Paul is the most refreshing part of this film. The two are mismatched and never attracted to each other — though Paul gets confused at several points — and yet their connection is the emotional crux of the film. While the film loses some momentum towards the end as it tries to tackle this rare narrative around platonic soulmates, Ellie and Paul’s sweet, awkward relationship wherein he teaches her to soften up and she teaches him to expand his horizons, is lovely to behold.
The film toys with a lot of weighty ideas about faith and soulmates, which it never is quite able to form a coherent message about, but its unexpected ode to platonic soulmates and its thoughtful depiction of immigrant life in smalltown America is a sweet, refreshing addition to the coming-of-age genre.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10