The Half Of It is the definitive rom-com of this generation; Alice Wu's film bridges gap between platonic and romantic love
The Half Of It shows some friendships do not have to turn into love-stories to be the greatest romance in your life.
Back in 2004, when Alice Wu made her directorial debut with Saving Face, an underseen immigrant coming-of-age tale, the ending of the film became a hotly contested topic of debate.
The general opinion seemed to be that the happy ending was a little too “happy” – a familiar grouse afflicting even the most sincere romantic comedies. The takeway of Saving Face, which unfolded a semi-closeted Chinese-American girl’s passionate romance in the backdrop of her mother’s surprise pregnancy, hinged on who ended up with whom.
But if you were to ask me, the scene of greater importance, that succinctly encompassed the essence of Saving Face, comes minutes before at an airport when a mother is left to comfort her heartbroken daughter having had her own heart broken seconds ago. In that moment, her opposition to her daughter’s queerness melts away in the background, replaced instead by their shared pain and the tenderness of the love they have for each other. What I particularly love about this sequence is that Wu does not make a big deal out of it: The scene is in itself brief and unadorned. No words are exchanged. Only a hug is shared but its intensity is enough to bridge generational differences, tempered equally by a daughter’s forgiveness and a mother’s acceptance. What matters here is not who they were going to end up with, but where they ended up. It is essentially coming-of-age royalty.
Sixteen years later, the heartfelt spirit of that one scene permeates an entire Alice Wu movie. The writer-director’s comeback Netflix film, The Half of It, ends on another happy note. But this time around, it is not accompanied by frantic discussions on whether its degree of “happiness” is earned or believable. Part of the reason is due to the fact that it is not an ending at all; instead it is a beginning of three different stories. If romantic comedies are defined by the happily-ever-afters they aspire towards, as if suggesting that a journey becomes less indelible if there is no destination in sight, then The Half of It is decidedly anti-rom-com, spotlighting instead everything that happens in between.
Set in the fictional small town of Squahamish in Washington, The Half of It revolves around Ellie Chu (Leah Lemis), a shy Chinese-American high-school nerd with a booming side-gig that involves writing essays for her classmates. As the only Chinese-American teenager in a predominantly white town, Ellie is also an obvious outsider, habituated to a life of invisibility, self-reliance, and routine – she is surrounded by people who seem to need her, and not friends who want her. Incidentally, that is also how she crosses paths with Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), the instantly likeable, comically dim-witted school jock. Paul is infatuated with Aster (Alexxis Lemire), dubbed the most beautiful girl in the school and needs Ellie’s help in articulating his feelings in a letter that he intends to send to her – under his name of course. Ellie agrees to his offer, except she is secretly attracted to Aster as well.
What was supposed to be one letter turns into a series of exciting, endless back-and-forth text messages between Ellie and Aster, the kind of correspondence about everything and nothing – covering authors, art, history, literature, personal insecurities, and musings – that is only possible when two people exist on the same wavelength without even trying to. But even though Aster is not aware she is not talking to the person she thinks she is talking to, and Paul has no idea what it is exactly that is being spoken about, both of them stumble upon a weird chemistry that seems easier to explain than Ellie’s bond with Aster. (There is a breathtaking sequence that sees Ellie and Aster half-submerged in a lake that turns adolescence into a moving image).
In that sense, the premise of The Half of It is derived from the classic catfishing template where a love triangle becomes the source of romantic tension that various rom-coms like Netflix’s Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and even the Hindi film, Bareilly Ki Barfi have mined to the hilt.
The thing about these movies is that they make love seem like a gimmick, as if emotions can be auctioned for the highest bidder. But The Half of It puts its own spin on this narrative. So even when Paul finds himself falling in love with his partner-in-crime, unaware that she is gay, The Half of It resists flattening its sensitivity or the language of longing of its three protagonists into a question of “Who gets the girl?” Instead, Wu diligently subverts the long-held ideals of romance, and envisions a love-story where two people do not have to be in love with each other to love each other.
If at first it might seem that the developing romance between Paul and Aster is the central focus of the film, Wu’s screenplay playfully suggests that is only the case because we might be looking at the wrong picture. As it turns out, the real love-story was playing out under our noses all this while – the bond that Paul forges with Ellie that brings her out of her shell, and in the process, making him realise his potential. The scenes that have Paul and Ellie in the same frame are some of the best in the film.
Wu captures the innocence of their friendship, which forms the beating heart of the movie, in impossibly romantic hues: Paul takes care of Ellie after a drunken night; she secretly writes letters to food journalists in order to inform them about his “taco sausage roll” invention. By the end of the film, both Ellie and Paul, misfits in their respective worlds, unlock parts of themselves they had not been able to access solely because of the other’s presence in their life. It is through them that The Half of It recognises that love, just like happy endings, cannot just be about obligation.
That is not to say the film does not boast of a romance. Like Phoebe-Waller Bridge’s Fleabag and Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, there are several interpretations wherever you look: there is Paul and Ellie’s love-story, the one between Ellie and her depressed, widowed father, and more crucially, there is the story of how Ellie falls in love with herself.
In The Half of It, love is coded in immigrant resilience that soldiers on despite having an entire system work against it. It is embedded in both words and actions, whether it is a text comprising a set of emojis or a father swallowing his own pain to accord his daughter a chance at adolescence that she once lost. And it can simultaneously be found in pulsating, irrational desire, the kind that can one moment make you push yourself away from the very person you want to be next to while being submerged in a lake together, and the next moment, give you the courage to walk up for a kiss.
If anything, the very existence of The Half of It mainstreams a definition of love that does not need to be romantic to be unconditional. By being anti-rom-com, The Half of It effortlessly becomes the most definitive rom-com of our times, a period when the distance between platonic and romantic love is but a blurred line.
Wu cleverly uses the device of happy endings to put across this thought. The Half of It is bookended by a gorgeous, heartwarming closing sequence which is itself a riff on a conversation that Ellie and Paul have midway through the movie. One night, when both of them watch a Hindi film where the hero runs behind a running train that has the woman he loves, Ellie dubs him moronic. But Paul, who believes that love is about the "effort" one makes, focuses on how he is trying to make her smile. “She seems sad,” he offers as explanation. "Who tries to outrun a train?" Ellie replies in exasperation. But when Paul starts running behind her train as it starts pulling away, effectively replicating that very scene, she finds her answer. The magic, after all, lies in the trying.
It seems poetic then, that the film opens with a Fleabag-esque declaration where Ellie claims that “this is not a love story.” But by the time it ends, it legitimises the one thing that most rom-coms seem to forget: some friendships do not have to turn into love-stories to be the greatest romance in your life.
All images from Twitter.
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