“This is not a love story” is a claim made by Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), at the start of Alice Wu’s 2020 film The Half of It. This is only partially true.
The movie is about high school senior Ellie Chu, who writes essays for other students for money, which she uses to support her and her father. The two of them live in Squahamish, your classic boring smalltown. She has a crush on Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), local popular girl. Everything changes when Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a jock with a hopeless crush on Aster enlists Ellie’s help in writing love letters to Aster. Ellie soon becomes Paul’s dating coach, all the while hiding her own feelings. She and Paul become friends, and together they take on all the challenges presented by their families, their futures, and love.
No, this is not a love story in the traditional sense of the word, but in a way that’s far more complex than the typical teen rom-com. It’s a movie about love in all its forms, and all of the trials and tribulations that come with it. Love isn’t something that’s as open and shut as we often believe it to be, and it goes so much farther than romance.
“Love isn’t patient and kind and humble. Love is messy, and horrible, and selfish. It’s not finding your perfect half, it’s the trying, and reaching, and failing.”
This is the love that we’re all the most familiar with, the one we’re told is the most important. I mean, it’s everywhere! Music, movies, books, you name it. Almost everything we consume media-wise has some connection to romance.
For a while, we were only shown one type of romance, one “right” way to love. Boy meets girl. Boy dates girl. Boy and girl get married and live happily ever after. It’s not a bad story, in fact it can be quite fun, but it’s wildly disingenuous to pretend that this is 100% the way it goes.
In recent years, Hollywood has gotten a little bit better with veering off course from this standard, but many movies still employ the “Hollywood Ending”. People typically take this to mean “happily ever after”, but for the purposes of this review, let’s define a “Hollywood Ending” as an ending that is clearcut and neat, all wrapped up with no loose ends. This occurs both in comedies and tragedies. Usually the characters end up together, or they don’t.
Not in The Half of It.
The whole movie is structured like the sort of high school rom-com that we’re all used to seeing, utilising all of the classic tropes (nerd, jock, popular girls, etc.). With lots of scenes where Ellie and Aster bond, leading us to hope and believe that they are going to get together.
The opening scene of the movie is an explanation of Plato’s Symposium, talking about how every person has a “perfect half” and how we spend our whole lives searching for them.
“Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole”
Yet, the ending is still left for the most part ambiguous. Ellie kisses Aster and tells her that she will “see her in a few years”, before leaving. So do they end up together or not? We don’t know, but honestly, it still doesn’t feel like a copout or a lazy ending, that’s just how life is. Ellie and Aster care for each other quite deeply, and because of that, they decide to take time and wait it out, until they know themselves better and are able to understand their romantic desires and needs more fully. I personally think that this is a really healthy way of looking at things, and this is honestly my favourite ending to any “romantic” movie that I’ve ever seen.
It just goes to show that we don’t have a “perfect half”, it’s not nearly as simple. And yet, there is still so much beauty and joy to be found in the pursuit of love.
Friendships are often only seen as a “consolation prize”, as something that takes a backseat to romantic relationships. “Friendzone” is a word that gets thrown around all too often, in response to the anger felt over a relationship not “progressing to the next level” (romance). While fleshed out and fulfilling friendships do exist in the media, they are few and far between compared to romance. Many writers choose to have friendships take a backseat to romance, and while people can obviously write whatever they want, boy is it ever refreshing to see a healthy friendship in a “romantic comedy”.
Ellie and Paul’s friendship progresses slowly yet steadily over the course of the film, and ends in a way that is both satisfying and heartwarming. The two of them manage to connect with one another, and despite having almost nothing in common, they make it work, demonstrating the elusive and confusing workings of human relationships.
The part of the movie that really made their friendship hit home for me was the talent show scene, in which Ellie’s piano is out of tune, so Paul passes her a guitar and urges her to “play her song” (something she had composed earlier on in the film). It was such a small action, but showed so much support for Ellie and really established the quiet yet powerfully close essence of their friendship. It’s a scene that gets me every time I watch this movie, it’s just so wonderful.
Other scenes that I enjoyed were the scenes where Ellie was trying to help Paul woo Aster, specifically the “ping-pong” scene, in which Ellie tries to help Paul with his conversation skills by likening a conversation to a game of ping-pong. They start talking about themselves, and even though Paul hasn’t had the same experiences that Ellie has, he is able to empathize with her, and they both do their best to understand each other.
The final scene in the movie, where Paul runs after Ellie’s train like they’re in some cheesy movie is also really amazing. First of all, it’s a callback to an earlier scene in which Ellie expresses her distaste for the trope saying that it’s “stupid” but Paul claims that he really likes it. Again I feel like it really demonstrates the closeness of their friendship, and how platonic relationships can be just as moving as romantic ones.
It made me really happy to see friendship hold the same narrative weight as romance, as it’s bypassed far too often, despite the fact that platonic love is wildly important and beautiful.
“The difference between a good painting and a great painting is typically five strokes. And they’re typically the five boldest strokes of the painting”
The final type of love explored in The Half of It is self-love. This is mostly explored through the concept of “being bold” and each character’s struggle with what that means for them. Each of the three protagonists have to grapple with self-identity and expectations from their families and peers, they all have to figure out who they want to be and what they want to do with their futures.
Aster’s struggle with boldness is at the forefront of who she is as a character. Her family is very traditional and religious, her friend group is obsessed with conformity. Her entire future has been planned out by her father and her boyfriend, Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz). Over the course of the movie, Aster has to make the choice between staying with the status quo and having an underwhelming yet safe life, or making a bold stroke and risking it all. She ends up going with the latter choice, deciding to leave Squahamish and make her own way in the world, enrolling in art school.
Paul also has to decide between his family’s tradition and his own wishes, though on a slightly smaller scale. His family owns a restaurant which is struggling, but still sticks to their traditional recipes. Paul has his own ideas but knows that bucking tradition would break his mother’s heart, and as he says “it’s either her heart or mine”. He eventually decides to try, prioritizing his own happiness over the expectations placed on him by his family. This situation mirror’s Asters quite well and helps highlight the similarities between the two characters, though they express themselves quite differently.
Ellie also has to figure out whether or not she wants to be bold, by deciding whether she wants to stay in Squahamish and go to a college that offers her a full ride, or to leave and have a fresh start and a chance to truly express herself, at the cost of safety.
All of these characters have to fight outside expectations, but ultimately make choices that will serve them, as opposed to doing what other people want them to do. This demonstrates love of the self, as ultimately, the person who will have to live with the choices you make is yourself.
The Half of It is an in-depth exploration of love in all it’s messy, painful, and beautiful forms. It’s a wonderful movie that will simultaneously leave you an emotional mess, and give you a more optimistic outlook on life and love.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favourite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.