A lot of modern cultural and social themes have worked their way into movies over the last decade or so. Criticisms of religion, growing up in the 2000s and 2010s, sexual discovery, proper cultural representation…they’ve all become part of the zeitgeist during that time. In early May Netflix released one of the most effective mixes of these different themes and concepts to date in the form of a coming-of-age drama called “The Half of It”. The recipient of the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and directed by Alice Wu whose works tend to revolve around Asian and non-heterosexual characters, “The Half of It” might seem like just another LGBTQ love story at first, but thanks to effective acting, direction and storytelling it becomes so much more.
“The Half of It” revolves around Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), an Asian-American student with no friends at her school in a small religious town called Squahamish. Ellie is a straight-A student who earns money on the side writing papers for her fellow students and performs her father’s duties at the local station master as he has been sidelined by the grief over his wife, Ellie’s mother’s, passing. As a result of her own grief and responsibilities Ellie takes the world too seriously seeing everything through a tunnel of facts and cynicism. Ellie is hired by illiterate school jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) to write a love letter as he seeks the affection of popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire) who also happens to be the daughter of the local pastor. As Ellie tries to help Paul woo Aster they become close friends. However, Ellie secretly begins to fall for Aster herself experiencing an emotional awakening that contradicts the values of their small-town society and causes Ellie to rethink her cynical perspectives.
That sounds like a lot to take in, but “The Half of It” balances its many ideas and revelations in a near perfect presentation of the modern coming-of-age story. Ellie Chu’s evolution from isolated workaholic into a more light-hearted young woman with an understanding of love isn’t necessarily a unique idea in and of itself, but her journey takes her in so many places to discover so many things about herself and yet never feels overwhelming. I found it quite impressive how well everything worked and how fresh it felt despite having so much ground to cover and working off of the basic framework of familiar cliches. This might be only the second feature length film by Alice Wu but it feels like she’s been doing this forever. Unlike many recent coming-of-age stories, which were quite good in their own right, “The Half of It” takes its time, develops ideas, lets its characters breath and never forces conflict into the scenario that don’t feel organic to the world Ellie lives in. Everything Ellie experiences, every roadblock she must work around feels like a real world struggle. The religious barriers of an LGBTQ coming-out story, the close-mindedness of a small town and the feeling of being trapped there, the loneliness of a young girl who has lost a central figure in her life, the difficulty of immigrants (in this case Ellie’s dad) to overcome the language barrier…these are all separate insightful themes and ideas that each would have made for a great film on their own. Together they make a surprisingly engaging piece where none of these themes feel lost in the shuffle and the story never feels too preachy or pretentious. It just feels real.
That’s because this movie isn’t about the negatives as much as it is overcoming roadblocks to being who you are. It isn’t about vilifying religion or preaching about racism. It isn’t about the struggles of the LGBTQ community as a whole. It’s about one girl, Ellie, and her journey to self-acceptance and how all of these wider issues play into her own life. Even the revelations and life lessons of those she grows close to are a direct result of Ellie’s journey. It does what every great coming-of-age story should aspire to do. It forces the viewer to put themselves in Ellie’s shoes and either recall when we experienced the same awakenings and revelations when we were young or, in the case of younger viewers, it gives hope that they too can overcome these experiences and look forward to and prepare for the changes that lie ahead. And it’s all done with a tenderness and understanding that allows the story’s emotional weight and significance to speak for itself. Sure, it spouts some philosophical rantings about love and art and society through Ellie and Aster’s exchanges, but these aren’t meant to convert the viewer to a specific perspective. They’re meant to specifically punctuate the bond shared by these two women and what would make them a great couple if they ever had the chance.
A great cast and committed storytelling help further add to this movie’s greatness as Alice Wu clearly refused to compromise as a director and storyteller while stars Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer and Alexxis Lemire are all welcome and capable fresh faces to the scene. This trio portrays an intriguing love triangle that really none of them realize even exists until much later in the film and yet even at their most awkward they all have great chemistry and come off as having real world bonds that tie them together. Many coming-of-age films have great casts and believable friendships but few have ever felt as natural or interesting as these three which is made even more impressive by the fact that they are seldom knowingly in the same place all at once. In fact only once do all three of them interact with each other directly at the same time. Of course this is Ellie’s story and Leah Lewis does an excellent job leading the way, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit all three of the main stars for helping sell the film as a whole. With Wu’s delicate touch supporting them from behind the scenes every piece of this complicated puzzle of emotion and the human experience of today’s youth comes together to create a fantastic snapshot capturing so much while saying and doing so little.
I’ll admit I might be overselling it a bit, but in my opinion “The Half of It” is excellent. It’s one of the best coming-of-age stories I’ve seen in a long time which is saying something because the 2010s gave us some fantastic movies for the younger generation to get behind. While most of those films focused more specifically on one element of growing up like sexuality, culture etc., “The Half of It” covers so much so perfectly at the same time that it could speak to any young American whether they’re children of immigrants, LGBTQ, lonely outcasts, nonbelievers or even believers struggling with the limitations of their faith and so on. There’s something for literally anyone to appreciate as we experience one young person’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. This is the kind of movie young people need to see right now, one that’s honest but hopeful, layered but easily understood, insightful but not mean spirited. It’s a special film that I hope becomes and inspiration for a generation.