I’ve got several pages of scrawled notes, but no catchy way to start this review. Let’s just say that The Half of It might just be the coming-of-age rom-com we’ve always needed, but maybe didn’t know we needed. It’s warm and funny and endearing and heartfelt and vulnerable and honest. It dances right up to all the usual rom-com tropes and then teaches them an entirely new step.
When she was five, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) moved with her parents from China to the tiny (fictional) town of Squahamish, Washington where her dad got a job as the manager of the whistle-stop train station. Her mom died, her dad (Collin Chou) retreated into himself, and now, in her senior year of high school, Ellie helps make ends meet by running an underground business ghost-writing less bright or motivated kids’ school papers. Ellie and her father are some of the only non-white people in town, and her identity is very much that of a stoic loner and outsider. When she rides her bike the miles to school every day, boys, the same boys who pay her to write their papers, drive by in a pick up truck yelling, “Chugga chugga choo-choo!” A senseless, stupid act of racist cruelty to which Ellie never reacts.
Then, just as Ellie is cruising toward graduation and settling for attending an affordable state school, Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a football playing jock, begs for her help (and offers to pay enough to cover Ellie and her dad’s overdue electric bill) writing a love letter to the very pretty and popular Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), toward whom Ellie has her own, very secret, perhaps not even fully acknowledged, feelings. It’s like a “Cyrano de Bergerac” adaptation. (Or maybe Roxanne, starring Steve Martin, rings a louder bell for you, which, no shame, it does for me.) Has that been done to death? Maybe, but in this case I don’t even care because it’s done with so much tenderness (and without the pat ending you might expect) that it’s not at all just another adaptation.
What I think Alice Wu, the writer and director, does so perfectly in this movie is to explore the boxes people are so often squished into in high school, and the way love and friendship and vulnerability can help to break out of them. As Ellie, posing as Paul, and Aster begin to communicate by letters (yes, the kind written by hand) and encrypted texts, Ellie sees that Aster is more than just a pretty girl betrothed to Trip (Wolfgang Novogratz), a football jock and heir-apparent to the local gravel pit who thinks so highly of himself that even Narcissus would be like, “Whoah, bro, maybe find a hobby other than loving on your own reflection.” In addition to talking about books, films, and philosophy, Ellie and Aster create art together, and Aster tells Ellie/Paul about the “oppression of fitting in.” How people don’t just want her to like them, they want her to be like them.
Paul, who at first seems to be a total dolt, harbors a secret love of creating foods and tasting new flavors, and shows an emotional intelligence, loyalty, and understanding above and beyond that of most people. He’s adorable, and while I originally wrote in my notes that he has a kind of Peter Kravinsky vibe, I think that sells him short (no disrespect to Peter Kravinsky intended). Through her growing friendship with him, Ellie begins to see a world beyond evenings spent eating chicken pot pie and watching old movies with her father while writing other people’s papers.
It’s Paul and Ellie’s friendship that is at the heart of this movie, which is moving and beautiful to watch. There’s a scene where Ellie is shopping at a second hand store for an outfit to wear to her talent show performance. Paul has tagged along to tell her about his most recent date with Aster, and at one point he looks at the outfit Ellie has chosen and tells her she looks weird. The whole shopping, dressing room scenario is a familiar one to anyone who has watched a rom-com, and I momentarily braced for a makeover, but in this case it’s different. “It just doesn’t look like you. All girled up,” Paul says, before offering to help her find something that’s more her. In another scene, Paul, who is on foot, is trying to keep up with Ellie as she bikes to school. When the truckful of twits goes by and yells their usual “chugga chugga choo choo,” Paul chases after them yelling back to stop and leave her alone. A look of shock, confusion, and appreciation crosses her face. They’re blips of moments, really, but they demonstrate so much about how the movie allows for vulnerability and intimacy to grow between the characters.
I worry a bit that I’m making this sound all heavy and humorless, which it’s very much not. First of all, the whole idea of Ellie being able to pass off her prose as Paul’s is already farcical given that talking is not his strong suit. I don’t mean that as any kind of insult to the movie; I think it was likely a conscious choice, and it works very well. Second, there are plenty of moments of humor and levity. Like when the phone dings with a text message and Paul and Ellie whip their heads around simultaneously. Or when Trig inexplicably decides that Ellie must be in love with him. Or when Ellie, Paul, and her father watch movies together and try Paul’s taco sausages.
Or when Paul and Ellie write on walls and flapping plastic in an old train car as they try to mold him into Aster’s perfect date. Or even the scene in the church when various characters interrupt the service to speak their truth—another moment when I think the movie manages to teach rom-coms some new moves. (What I’m saying is that I promise I’m not offering you another Normal People, which I know is supposed to be very good, but after watching the trailer and five minutes of the first episode, I decided that I was not currently in a place for that kind of epic yearning and lingering backlit closeups.)
But look, I should say that if you’re expecting the usual kind of rom-com ending, you’ll be disappointed. Right from the beginning Ellie tells us that this “isn’t a love story. Or, at least not one where anyone gets what they want.” This is a story, though, all about learning to love and be loved and to love and accept yourself in many and various ways. So in the end we, the viewers, get a delightful look into a story of self-discovery and the sometimes transformative power of different kinds of love.