Review: The Half of It

Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in The Half of It

The Half of It is a coming of age tale about love and longing and being who you are. It’s a story similar to the classic Cyrano de Bergerac with some modern refinements. I rate this film as an almost perfect movie and recommend it for everyone.

The Half of It was written and directed by Alice Wu. Her only other film is 2004’s iconic Saving Face. Both feature a Chinese American lesbian as the lead character.

The Half of It is the story of Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a high school senior in a small town in Washington state. Ellie and her Dad (Collin Chou) run the train station. Actually, Ellie runs the station and cares for her dad, who can’t seem to get out of his bathrobe and do anything since Ellie’s mom died.

Ellie earns extra cash by writing essays for kids in the high school.

Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in The Half of It

Ellie’s writing ability leads Paul (Daniel Diemer) to chase her down and ask for her help. He wants Ellie to write a love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) for him. That’s where the Cyrano de Bergerac connection comes from.

Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire in The Half of It

The problem, of course, is that Ellie is also in love with Aster. She writes letters for Paul that are passionate and intelligent. Aster ultimately describes them, “not safe.”

These are high school kids, not adults, and just coming of age. They are concerned with being different, with the “oppression of fitting in,” and with what to do after high school.

Ellie and Paul become very good friends after spending so much time together. He defends her from bullies. They love each other, but not as lovers. The value of friendship is a powerful theme.

Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire in The Half of It

Ellie and Aster share an afternoon in a hot spring. They become friends – and possibly more. Aster doesn’t realize that Ellie is the one writing the letters until after this near naked adventure.

Both girls are separated from their cultures, alone in a town full of white people. At home Ellie and her dad speak Mandarin. Aster’s father, Deacon Flores (Enrique Murciano), addressed her in Spanish.

As Ellie tells us in the very beginning, “This is not a love story. Or not one where anyone gets what they want.” By the end of the film, Ellie declares, “Love is horrible and selfish. And bold.”

The setting for the film was picture postcard gorgeous. The little train station with its ticket booth was almost a painting of bucolic life. Absolutely stunning cinematography by Greta Zozula added to the charm and beauty of the film. The story was literary, with discussions about books and quotes from Plato, Oscar Wilde and Sartre thrown up between sections.

Much of the action took place in a Catholic Church where Deacon Flores presided. Ellie played the organ for the services. But Ellie didn’t believe in God. Aster called Ellie “heathen” in the most affectionate way.

The church was not the enemy in this film. It can be in stories about LGBTQ people. But love in whatever form was accepted by the people who mattered to Ellie.

The names were delightful. Aster Flores translates to star flower, a lovely concept used in some of the art in the film. In the texting app that Aster and Paul (er, Ellie) used, Aster’s username was Diega Rivero. Ellie was Smith Corona.

Leah Lewis has apparently been acting since the age of 0. She has a resume about a mile long. She was a perfect Ellie, the shining light at the center of this warm and charming story. Her costumes, her hair styling, and her calm deep voice made her an outstanding and meaningful representation of a young Asian lesbian.

I’d love to see Leah Lewis and writer/director Alice Wu get some mainstream recognition and awards for this film.

The Half of It poster
Is it the person who matters, or the longing for the person that matters?

Here’s a look at the official trailer. The film is on Netfix.

Have you seen The Half of It? What did you think of it?

Bonus Trivia

Need a sausage taco recipe?

4 thoughts on “Review: The Half of It”

  1. Well, it took Alice Wu to finally get me to sign up for Netflix. After reading your review, viewing the trailer and already being a fan of Saving Face, I was compelled to watch The Half of It immediately. As always, Virginia, you were spot on with your review! What a beautiful coming of age story. I used to write secret letters to my high school crush, so this movie rang very true to life for me. Alice Wu has crafted characters that we recognize, empathize with and become attached to. A heartwarming film that will stand the test of time, generate lots of fan fiction and video tributes. Loved it from start to finish!

    1. I think it bears watching again and again, as is true of Saving Face. There are so many layers to the music, the literary subtext, even the movies on the tv in the Chu living room say something. One thing that could be a whole essay is Ellie’s wardrobe. There’s a lot there.

      1. By chance have you seen the Netflix short video of Alice Wu explaining the opening sequence of The Half of It? OMG – every tiny detail was thought out. Talk about a movie full of so many meaningful layers. Just beautiful.

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