Ellie Chu tells the audience right up in the opening sequence of the film – “This is not a love story”, à la the narrator in ‘500 Days of Summer’. And just like ‘500 Days of Summer’, ‘The Half of it’ subverts all genre conventions and tropes that people have come to expect, while still being a part of it and playing by its rules. It takes the very familiar story (one that’s been told over and over again, especially in the recent string of teen movies from Netflix), and just decides give the story realistic conclusions. And in doing so, it becomes something more than the genre sets it out to be, and the movies breaks free to greatness just like it’s protagonist.
I’m gonna be honest here, I’m not a fan of these Teen/High School movies from Netflix; most times they are just too cliched and suck real bad. And while ‘The Half of It’ has a really cliched plot, the executions and certain choices made in the production help it rise above it’s peers. The story begins with our lead protagonist Ellie Chu, an immigrant from China living alone with her father since her mom’s demise, as she explains us the concept soulmates to us using Greek mythology. “According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.” she says, showing her search for that fairy tale concept of love. But Ellie isn’t bothered much about that, she spends her time learning and writing papers for other students in exchange of money, so she can go to college even if it’s not her dream school. To spice up her boring life, one day High school jock Paul approaches her to write letters popular high school beauty Aster, so that he can woo. You have seen any movie in this genre over the last few decades, you know what’s gonna happen next. Naturally Ellie falls for Aster as they exchange letters and feels like she has finally found her other half who understands hers.
But here the film decides to take things a little different and turns itself into a complex and nuanced tale. First of all, yes it’s a story of a lesbian Chinese immigrant and that is a huge thing in itself. But just having a progressive character in your film doesn’t make it groundbreaking or good for that matter, it’s what you do with those characters that matters. This story could easily turn into the ‘gay best-friend’ trope popular in so many rom-coms, but instead what develops is really nuanced and probably one of movie friendships in recent memory. The chemistry between Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer is off the charts and the cute moments they share together were the highlights in film for me. And while Ellie is falling hard for Aster, Paul starts developing feelings for Ellie being unaware of the situation. Now this is the part of the story that could really go wrong by becoming very awkward or cheesy. But not The Half of it, rather it gives the decisions of it’s character real world repercussions which help them grow. Like Ellie Ellie says in another of her voice-overs, “no one will get what they want in the ensuing story. But they will get what they need.“
That is not say that The Half of it does a perfect job of rising above it’s genre, it gives up to it in certain places, like in a “standing up and shouting out their feelings” scene in the third act. And while it doesn’t resolve in the conventional way, it still uses those devices to tell the story. It definitely breaks out and stand above others in the genre, but still it ain’t no 500 days of Summer. But hey, saying that it is not as good as one of the best movies of this century is not really a criticism. And considering how many rules this movies breaks, from story telling plot devices to real life issues like teenage sexuality, Asian culture and even a subtle dab at religion. But again, I have seen a lot of articles praise the movie just for being progressive and said how it criticized religious people, but reading was quite different, I didn’t feel like it was undermining religious people at all, if anything it made understand why they believe what they believe in. And that’s the thing, this movie takes each of its characters seriously and gives them layer – saying that this movie is trying to show down upon any community only undermines the things it tries to speak for.
Alice Wu does an excellent job in directing the movies, she adds just enough quirk and innovative techniques to make it all seem special. This is only her sophomore film and her last film was fifteen years back. I don’t know if it’s for any personal reason, but if it is because she wasn’t getting any work, that’d be a huge bummer because boy does she direct this film. Leah Lewis nails the lead role and surely expecting to see more for from her. The overall cast is really good too, not much bad stuff to say here. And yeah, the score – it is just beautiful and a lot more emotion to the story. I’m definitely gonna listen to that score over and over.
“Love is messy, and horrible, and selfish, and … bold.”
So overall The Half of It is one of the rare teenage dramas on Netflix that’s funny and heart touching forever. Scenes like when Ellie’s dad speak about his wife’s demise for the first time or when Paul runs after Ellie on the train are gonna stay with you for a long time. And just like Tom in 500 days of Summer, when Ellie learns what love really means and we reach the heartbreak point in the story, you feel like you grow up with her. And then when she leaves her home for a successful career, you feel that change in you as you see Paul and Ellie struggle saying goodbye to each other. So, while it isn’t a love story, it is definitely one of the sweetest friendship, and that should be enough reason for you to give it a watch,
The Half of it is now streaming on Netflix. Big recommendation.