Media Production Editor and News Editor
With a new twist on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, Alice Wu’s movie The Half of It became available on Netflix on May 1, inspiring rave reviews as it touches upon themes of sexuality, race, bullying, communication, and above all, connection.
The Half of It follows the life of Ellie Chu, a senior in high school growing up in the rural town of Squahamish. Ellie, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, lives and works with her father at the town’s train station, making money on the side by writing essays for her fellow classmates. After being approached by her classmate Paul Munsky, a dull-witted but well-meaning football player, to write a love letter to a girl named Aster Flores, Ellie accepts despite harboring romantic feelings for Aster. As the story proceeds, Ellie – writing on behalf of Paul – continues exchanging letters with Aster, until their connection is cut short when Ellie reveals that she is the one who has been writing to Aster. Despite this, the two eventually make amends, promising to reconnect in a few years during college.
The film’s commentary on cultural isolation is profound, sparking conversations about the lives and experiences of underrepresented groups. The protagonist is not only an immigrant living in a mostly homogeneous town, disconnecting her from her peers, but she is queer, making her a stranger to her own culture. The representation in the film sets the tone for a uniquely significant love story – diverging from the industry normal, The Half of It is able to communicate empowering messages of self-acceptance, personal strength, and individuality to its audiences in a manner that is particularly impactful.
With a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Half of It has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and with good reason. The movie thoughtfully addresses the intersection of identities and the clashing of cultures. As the plot progresses, each of the characters experiences profound personal growth, while enduring hardships that are portrayed with startling intensity. The internal battles between expression and repression, freedom and safety, come through with enough depth to invoke emotion, but refrain from overt moralizing. Wu’s eloquence and breathtaking cinematography, made unique through creative framing and lighting, combine with skilled actors to produce an unparalleled film.
Casting actors who are new to the scene is important to Wu. She explained, “I really wanted fresh faces and wanted people to believe they exist, not that they’re not watching some kid they’ve already seen in three teen movies.” Leah Lewis, also known for roles in the TV shows Nancy Drew and The Good Doctor, stars as Ellie Chu. Wu describes Lewis as “so interesting to watch,” noting that the role requires Lewis “to strip away all the things that she’s built through her life that are really wonderful.” Alongside her, Alexxis Lemire shines as Aster Flores, “delivering her lines in such a nuanced way,” according to Wu. The male lead Daniel Diemer nails his role as “the most emotionally intelligent character,” portraying Paul Munsky with depth and thoughtfulness.
The Half of It is Wu’s second film to feature a queer, Chinese-American protagonist. Saving Face, Wu’s debut feature released in 2004, focuses on the relationship between Wilhelmina, a young surgeon, and her unmarried pregnant mother, and the toll placed on Wil’s relationship with her girlfriend. Though the movie received generally mixed reviews, it became impactful among the LGBT and the Asian-American communities and is among one of the first Hollywood movies to feature the lives of Chinese-Americans, alongside films such as The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians.
To learn more about Wu’s creative process and details in The Half of It you may have missed, check out El Gato’s interview with Alice Wu here.
(Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, New York Times, TIME Magazine, Variety)