The Half of It: a muted autumnal almost-romance

Okay, I’m just going to say it: why is the deal with Netflix original teen romcoms and dead Asian mothers? First, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and now this. It could just be a coincidence, but it does seem like a plot device they love. Though, yes, it does make for a co-dependent yet touching father-daughter relationship in this film too, so I suppose I’ll accept it. We’ll get to that…

Biggest Gay Mood: Being bullied in high school

The Half Of It (Alice Wu, 2020) is your classic American teen romcom with a twist: it’s GAY. Lesbian, specifically. Maybe bisexual on one half; it’s hard to tell. Typical high school nerd Ellie Chu writes other people’s school essays for money to help support her father. One day she is commissioned by Paul to write a love letter to beautiful popular girl Aster, and it works almost too well. Ellie writes with increasing passion to Aster, who thinks she’s Paul, and a complicated pseudo-relationship progresses. I’m not going to lie, it’s a great premise. And, despite some clumsiness, it mostly delivers.

Top Tip: Prepare yourself for a warm-toned, neutral colour pallette. Light an autumnal candle, if you have one. Get in the mood.

Smattered across the storyboard are a wide variety of heavy-handed metaphors that try sometimes a little too hard to be sophisticated and intellectual (thoush I suppose that idea is very high school). Let me walk you through them, and then you can judge for yourself:

  • First, we have the opening fable: a Greek tale about human’s predecessor being born with two heads and two bodies, only to split by the Gods and left forever searching the world for their other half. Having watched the whole film, this soulmate thing doesn’t really come up much again, but it makes for an engaging opening. Listen, it’s no safari montage (a la Mean Girls), but I was intrigued.
  • Second, we have a game of ping pong used to teach someone how to have a normal conversation (back and forth). Not much to say here. At least they didn’t have to switch who was talking each time they hit the ball. That would have been a bit too chaotic.
  • Third, one crucial decision-making moment in the plot literally happens at a cafe called ‘The Turning Point’.
  • Next we have Paul’s culinary invention, the ‘taco-sausage’, which he’s uncomfortably obsessed with. It’s literally his only character trait except being obsessed with Aster. Hello, phallic much?
  • And finally, a lot of talk about ‘making bold strokes’; i.e., taking the plunge, asking someone out, saying yes, making a big decision. We do get a fun graffiti sequence of collaborative wall art out of this. And, handily for the metaphor to work, Aster is an artist herself, even painting a (underwhelming) picture of a daisy for Paul (or maybe Ellie) towards the end. It’s all a bit cheesy, but what did we expect?
Soundtrack Stand Out: Break the Rules, Ruen Brothers

Phew, now that’s out the way, let’s take a closer look at some of the characters and themes. First off, a little bit of a rough spot: Paul.

Ah Paul. Remember, the taco sausage guy? Look, I appreciate the main male character being a fucking idiot, I really do, and it’s quite representative of men as a whole, but it really does get a bit much at times. As a caricature of the clueless straight man, he can’t even bring himself to string a sentence together for the girl he’s in love with. And in our classic rom-com miscommunication, he ends up more than once jumping to the conclusion that someone is in love with him. If I had a ‘Biggest Straight Man Mood’ that would probably be it. Perhaps my least favourite feature of the movie was trying to make him likeable. Let’s move on quickly.

Thankfully our main character is much more grounded and identifiable. Leah Lewis plays the shy yet determined Ellie Chu beautifully and delicately. Her relationship with her father is complicated but touching, and she works hsrd to support him without ever wanting to let him know, and the quiet tension and awkwardness in their relationship is pulled off superbly. Overall, her character arc is the most notable, and she fully comes into her own by the end of the film. Refreshingly, her main internal struggle is nothing to do with her queer identity, but rather a coming to terms with what she wants out of life in general, realising that she deserves the chance to look for it, and how to express that.

Britney Line Time: Baby, all I need is time // I don’t wanna be so shy

For a proported lesbian romance, The Half of It doesn’t spend a huge amount of time on Aster and Ellie’s interactions, most of which happen through Ellie pretending to be Paul. Without giving too much away, there is a distinct lack of development in their relationship, and though Ellie warns us through narration that “this is not a love story” (very 500 Days of Summer), I spent a lot of the film willing it to be one. Don’t get me wrong though, there are some great moments.

Maybe I’ve watched too many gay films by now, but I picked up another reference in the most intimate scene between the two girls. Aster takes Ellie to an almost unbelievably idyllic hidden hot spring (via a forest with Big Sapphic Energy), where they swim and share feelings and secrets. Aster is perhaps the most open we ever see her in the film, and we as an audience are privvy to a sense of secrecy and exclusivity in this moment of friendship (or is it more?) between her and Ellie. Panning up, we see the two floating girls from above, navigating their feelings towards each other, as well as their own identities. While the two scenes end differently, this side by side of Jongens (Mischa Camp, 2014) and The Half of It speaks for itself.

The Half of It, left (via Netflix) v.s Jongens, right (via IMDB)

Apparently an unlikely friendship + wild swimming = gay romance? Sign me up!

Overall, if you go in expecting romance, then perhaps this isn’t for you. But if you want a sensitive, if at times clumsy (looking at you Paul), coming-of-age story through warm, autumnal sepia tones, then dive right in.

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Header image via Netflix

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