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“This is not a love story, or at least not one where anyone gets what they want,” is the line The Half of It chooses to open on. That might be true by the end of the film but the conclusion to Alice Wu’s queer coming-of-age film suggests that its characters’ wants are quite different from their needs. So, no: the characters of The Half of It might not get what they want but they do get what they need. More importantly they also realise that what they need is more important than what they want. Despite the occasional irritating flaw and dismissed story thread The Half of It comes through with its heartfelt message intact.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a smart but shy second generation Chinese-American high school student living in the small, backwards town of Squahamish. She makes extra money by writing essays for her classmates to subsidise her depressed single father Edwin’s (Collin Chou) job as a railway signalman. One day football jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) asks Ellie to help him write a love letter to the gorgeous high school queen Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie agrees but of course what Paul doesn’t know is that Ellie is also in love with Aster. Needless to say hearts are broken, hearts are mended and love blossoms on the snowfields of Squahamish.
The Half of It seems to be stuck between two different worlds. Those worlds are the reality of great coming-of-age movies like The Spectacular Now and the fantasy of great indie romantic-comedies like 500 Days of Summer. It keeps the quirky comedy and cues of 500 Days of Summer but it tries to mix that with the moments of reality The Spectacular Now did so well. The thing is these moments of reality hit like hammer blows and often jar with the light or romantic scenes that have come before. The fine balance between these two modes is there but The Half of It has difficulty finding it.
Although the complicated love triangle of Ellie, Paul and Aster is meant to be the heart of the movie it’s the growing friendship between Ellie and Paul that feels like the beating engine giving the film its energy. The Half of It is a good romantic comedy with incredibly heavy-handed choices in cues, references, and climactic scenes but it’s a better movie about friendship across cultural, racial, and sexual boundaries. Questions like can men and women be friends, or can straight guys and lesbians be friends, or can jocks and nerds be friends, are all swept aside by the chemistry between Ellie and Paul. It’s like watching a champion three-legged race team and Lewis and Diemer sell it all incredibly well.
Still, The Half of It tends to drop the ball more than most other romantic coming-of-age films. We’re veering slightly into spoiler territory here, so fair warning. The revelation that Ellie is a lesbian will be no surprise to the audience but it is to Paul. Shocked at first, he tries to better understand his new best friend. Doing so, he leaves his computer open on a Google search of “How do you know you’re a gay?” only for his mother to find it. The door is surely left open for some third act drama here, but at that stage there’s only 20 minutes left and the film never revisits this moment.
Parts of The Half of It feel undercooked and I couldn’t help think that this film would work better with an extra 30 minutes. There are stories that aren’t served all that well by the 100 minute time limit here, particularly the wonderfully subtle yet emotive Chou as Edwin, Ellie’s dad. The character of Aster never feels fully developed either and her dopey boyfriend Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz) is more plot device than character which makes his presence in the climactic scene feel like an obligation rather than a natural occurrence. It’s unfortunate because when The Half of It plays to its strengths its batting for the fences.
Despite all of these half measures The Half of It sticks to its chosen course. For good or for ill no one gets what they want but it remains a love story, nonetheless. Just not a love story able to tell all it wants to in the time needed to tell it. With all of that said The Half of It is still the type of film we need more of. It’s a queer coming-of-age drama with an Asian-American lead as well as a Netflix romance without Noah Centineo so double points for representation and variety of dumb-but-sweet white guy. It’s a love story that not only wants to be told but needs to be told. Although it might be short on time something tells me its reach will be long.