No, Really … You Don’t Know ‘The Half of It

Credit...KC Bailey/Netflix

By Olivia Jonokuchi, age 18, Greenwich Academy, Greenwich, Conn.

I thought I’d seen the peak of Asian-American representation in cinema after watching “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) in the same year. Turns out, I was egregiously mistaken.

As an Asian-American with an inclination for art and philosophy, I’ve never felt a movie shake me to my core so much as Alice Wu’s stunning cinematic achievement “The Half of It” (2020). A romantic comedy drama starring any Asian character is rare, but one that’s also set in an insular, religious hometown starring a queer immigrant high school student? OK, now I’m definitely watching.

Interspersed with quotes from Plato, Camus, Sartre and Oscar Wilde, this deceptively weighty and clever movie will manage to make you laugh, cry and contemplate your identity all at once. Centered on the friendship between Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a Chinese-American, queer, essay-writing entrepreneur, and Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a lovable buffoon of a football player who struggles to string his words into coherent sentences, “The Half of It” exudes an undeniably unique charm.

When Paul asks Ellie to ghostwrite a love letter for his crush Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie finds herself in a Cyrano-like situation, falling hard and fast for Aster herself.

Hopeless romantics be warned — this story is about friendship. As Ellie makes abundantly clear from the outset, “This is not a love story. Or not one where anyone gets what they want.” Yet each character ends the movie a better version of themselves — braver, bolder and more open-minded. Perhaps it’s not what they wanted, but rather, what they (and the viewer) actually needed.

Wu’s Asian-American perspective is evident in the carefully devised character of Ellie’s father (Collin Chou), who only wears his flannel pajamas for the majority of the movie and is clearly depressed. Unable to get a promotion in America, Mr. Chu seems to have resigned himself to a life of stagnation. When Paul asks Ellie why she and her father haven’t left their hometown, she notes how “speaking good English trumps having a Ph.D.” Through her depiction of Ellie’s father, Wu acknowledges the struggles of the immigrant whose economic situation mirrors that of many Asian-Americans; we may have job accessibility, but we still lack upward mobility.

With Asian-American, immigrant and L.G.B.T.Q. representation, and no generic happy ending, “The Half of It” stands alone in the teen romantic comedy genre. It’s a story about finding yourself, navigating the trials and tribulations of love in high school, and, above all, forging relationships with the most unlikely of friends. If you haven’t heard the name Alice Wu, you haven’t seen “The Half of It.”