A Love Letter to Alice Wu’s “The Half Of It”

The Half Of It

I never start love letters with pet names. It doesn’t feel right. A name followed by a dash is how I start instead. I love names. If I’ve been thinking about you, then I’ve been thinking about your name, over and over and over, saying it to myself, saying it to friends. I’m so excited for The Half Of It, I loved The Half Of It, you really must watch The Half Of It.

See, it’s a fitting start.

I guess it’s weird to write a love letter to a movie. But people don’t write love letters because they’re feeling rational. They write love letters, because they’ve been struck with a feeling so powerful that it’s the only possible form of expression. They need the time and space to formulate their thoughts into words; they need the romance of a retired art form. And that’s how you made me feel.

I’d been excited to see you since you appeared on the 2018 Black List as one of the year’s best unproduced screenplays. I couldn’t believe Alice Wu finally had another movie after all these years. Saving Face isn’t just a good lesbian romcom. It’s a movie that took words usually applied as qualifiers — lesbian, romcom, Asian-American — and showed what Hollywood views as narrow limitations to be vast opportunities. It’s a movie that’s grounded in the individuality and community of its characters, and a crowning achievement of a genre people write-off as comfort over quality. It is evidence that humor does not equal slightness, that sincerity does not equal a lack of depth.

Alice Wu makes it look easy, but it’s not easy — it’s nearly impossible. And yet here she is a decade and a half later with you — another romcom somehow just as accomplished but with a specificity of your own.

Your premise is delightfully simple: Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a quiet Chinese-American 17-year-old living in a small town called Squahamish, writing essays for her lazy classmates, and taking care of her grieving father. She’s closed off to the possibilities of life, she’s closed off to the possibilities of love, she’s closed off to the possibilities of her queerness. And then she meets her school’s sweet and goofy second string tight end Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer). He’s fallen in love and wants Ellie to write a love letter for him. If this was a straight movie the two of them would fall for each other. But this is not a straight movie. Instead Ellie falls for Munsky’s crush Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) — and even that is not the point.

Teen comedies, romcoms, and queer movies, share a pressure for simplicity. Adult creators often underestimate what their younger audiences can handle; the point of a romance is to provide an idealized version of love; decades of tragic gay stories have left queer viewers obsessed with happy endings. You lovingly refuse each one of these restrictions. You understand the messiness of adolescence, of love, of queerness. You tap into our deeper wants — and show what we really need to see. But you’re so funny and charming and lovely and real, I’m certain that people will celebrate the challenge.

You aren’t a love story, but that doesn’t mean your love story is any less important. Watching Ellie and Aster connect — even under the guise of Ellie as Paul — is overwhelming. It’s that thing, right, where you’re in a small town and nobody understands you and then suddenly you find one person who does. And, sure, there’s probably a whole world of people out there who could understand you like they do, but you don’t know that. You’re young. And for the first time in your life you don’t feel alone. Even if someday you realize you weren’t actually soulmates, it still means everything, and will always mean everything, because when life felt impossible and the future seemed bleak that person showed you that you could belong.

It can be as simple as the person making a reference to a weird movie you love. It can be as complicated as their eyes gazing so deep into yours that you want to die with ache and live forever. With Ellie and Aster, you’ve given us a teen romance to believe in, because it feels like a real teen romance — important and inconsequential all at once.

And then there is Paul. Aster shows Ellie there are people who are like her, but it’s Paul who shows Ellie there are people who can care about her. Ellie’s dad (Collin Chou) is sweet and loving and trying his best, but since Ellie’s mom died four years earlier, Ellie has taken over as the parent. She often fulfills her dad’s station manager duties, she takes care of chores, she makes extra money by plagiarizing essays, and she calls the electric company when her dad is worried about his accent. She doesn’t have friends. She only has responsibilities.

But during the long wooing process of Aster, Paul becomes Ellie’s friend. He asks questions about her life. He defends her against bullies. He encourages her to express herself. He’s kind to her. He cares about her. He loves her. And, in that way, you are a love story. You’re about all the different ways to love — romantic, familial, friend. The process of learning to give and receive love is so much more complicated than a first crush.

These are the thematic reasons I adore you, but there should be an acknowledgement that — like Saving Face — you’re just better than most movies. Wu’s writing, Greta Zozula’s cinematography, and all of the performances don’t need qualifiers. They’re not great for a romcom — they’re just great.

There’s a moment when Ellie is deep in her textual relationship with Aster that Paul asks when the dating starts. Ellie, filled with delicious longing, says that this is dating. Paul is confused. “No, dating is burgers and fries and shakes. And maybe another order of fries.”

This small moment reveals so much about what these two young people don’t understand about love. You’re filled with so many moments like this. You’re as epic as the concept of love and as small as the town of Squahamish. You’re as perfect as a movie can be and as messy as a movie should be. To say it simply, I love you.

The thing is people don’t actually fall in love with movies. The thing is this isn’t really a love letter to you. This is a letter to my first love who saw my queer self before I did. This is a letter to my best friend who cared for me in a way I didn’t think I deserved. This is a letter to my dad who supported me even when he didn’t understand. And this is a letter to Alice Wu for making yet another film I’ll cherish forever.

*pineapple* *owl* *caterpillar with glasses*,
Drew


The Half Of It comes out on Netflix tomorrow, May 1st. 

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 122 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. Great writeup Drew! I think you encompassed much of what I am feeling!

    If I could add, the fact that Alice has only made 2 films must surely be a crime against humanity. I truly hope we do not have to wait another 16 years for another film.

    Excuse me now while I settle down and watch it for a third time and again say …thank you Alice ..thank you! <3

    • Wow Drew.You took all the feelings from the movie that I got but couldn’t explain into words and painted the boldest 5 strokes possible.
      Thank you for this love letter.
      Paul

  2. I am sorry, I see the all the reasons why the movie is great, but does nobody see the problematic part of it?

    Deceiving Someone to make them fall in love with you? Tricking someone so that they meet up, like you, kiss you?
    Where is the consent in meeting somebody for a date, when you were texting with a whole different person the entire time? I felt the movie was making cute of sth that is actually quite serious and would be unacceptable behavior in any other context.

  3. I’d been excited to watch The Half of It because I loved Saving Face. Plus in these shelter in place times I find that I have little patience in watching shows about straight people (let alone men). What I did not expect was to full on cry during the movie, because Ellie’s loneliness and her loving relationship with her father touched something deep in me. I love that it subverts the typical rom-com expectations, instead it shows us the rise of desire in the three characters.

    I can’t wait to watch it again with the director’s commentary.

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