Directed by: Alice Wu
Written by: Alice Wu
Starring: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire, Enrique Murciano, Wolfgang Novogratz
Tropes are very easy to fall into, as they provide a road map of what has worked in the past and can lead to creating something audiences feel comfortable with. Breaking away from them shows artistic vigor and freshness in their stories, which The Half of It almost nails but it struggles heavily when it reaches the climax of the film.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives with her father in a small town called Squahamish, where she helps guide trains, plays the organ at church, and has to deal with name-calling at school. While her father struggles to have a steady income, she subsidizes their lives by writing papers for students at a price. One day, Paul (Daniel Diemer) requests that Ellie write a love letter to a girl he wants to date, which complicates things for Ellie as she has similar feelings for that same girl.
Expectations say it all with films and The Half of It begins by outright stating that this story is not a romance and not to expect this to follow those tropes. It sets the tone from the very start to adjust whatever idealization of this story you might have held. With it, the story introduces an incredibly likable and relatable character in Ellie Chu. She does everything she must do to support her father who struggles with learning English as they came from China. Her father had plenty of qualifications to get a great job in the United States, but his limited ability to speak English prohibits those opportunities to materialize. He spends his days watching old American movies to pick up the language. Ellie needs to support him while also putting up with the nonsense that takes place in school. A place where she’s mocked by others as they chant “Ellie Ellie Chu Chu” because she helps navigate trains. It really shows the peak of comedy when you look at it coming from a 3-year-old, not high schoolers.
The character of Ellie then meets Paul, who happens to be the opposite of her, as he’s a jock that does not happen to be very smart, but knows that Ellie can write good papers and maybe she could do the same with some love letters. The girl who allures them both is Aster Flores, which really kicks off the plot and shows what makes this film successful with its story. The relationship between Ellie and Paul becomes such a beautiful friendship because of their differences. Not in a cheesy romantic comedy way but of one of deep friendship that grows between them. As Ellie assists Paul in communications with Aster, he is unaware of Ellie having feelings for the same girl. It makes the letters and texts Ellie writes on behalf of Paul all the more loving.
This Ratatouille-like style of direction that Ellie provides Paul sets up some very fun sequences of her trying to guide him through a date with her. The difference in their approaches could not be more different as Ellie wants to woo Aster through words and building a bond, while Paul just wants to ask her out to eat some burgers and a milkshake. The text conversations Ellie has with Aster on behalf of Paul contain such a poetic beauty to them with how it breaks down what love could be. The screenplay, while beautiful, seems to fall into what I describe as the John Green trap of making these high schoolers speak like they’re 30-year-old philosophers, which takes away some of the believability but still works with many profound ideas. When working on that level, the film reaches its peak. You have the friendship between Ellie and Paul, while the latter gets closer with Aster.
Unfortunately, as the film reaches its climax, it really gets messy in a way that becomes entirely predictable. This movie tried so hard to break any conventions of love stories that it fell right into them when it gets to the most pivotal moments in the story. It has characters making really strange decisions based on how they’ve been established and a scene at the church goes completely off the rails and crashes into a wall. The conclusion cleans it all but and wraps up a bow to end it, but that climax felt so jarring to the rest of the narrative that it took away from the quality of the entire production.
Characters like Ellie Chu rarely get the spotlight and The Half of It provides it in a moving and ponderous way. She becomes such a lovely character that has to battle through so much just to simply exist and the conversations she shares with the unknowing Aster reflect the turmoil and yearning for love she deeply desires. It makes for an unconventional tale that almost nails but it had its blunders towards the end. Still something to appreciate as a love story like no other.