What Makes “The Half of It” a Good Movie?
This is why so many young people are connecting with this uncommon coming of age story
I won’t fill you in on every single detail, but if you haven’t seen the movie I’ll give you a brief backstory. The Half of It, written and directed by the ever so talented Alice Wu, is about an Asian-American teenager, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who is living in a small town with her widowed father (Collin Chou). She’s entering her senior year of high school where she has yet to make any lasting friendships. A jock (Daniel Diemer) asks her to assist him in writing a love letter to a girl (Alexxis Lemire) he’s trying to impress. This girl just so happens to be the same girl Ellie likes.
I guess one could say what makes this movie so different from other coming of age movies is the love triangle dynamic. In most cases, a love triangle in a film consists of two guys swooning over the same girl (Twilight), or two girls pining for the same guy (The Duff). But I don’t think the refreshing addition of queer representation in this movie is what makes it stand out from the crowd.
The protagonist in the film, Ellie Chu, isn’t seen with any friends throughout the entire movie. Of course, aside from the instances where she’s helping the athlete Paul win over the admired Aster, Ellie is by herself for a good portion during the movie. I think too often in coming of age films we see teenagers with these blooming social lives. High school may be a tumultuous period of their lives, but at least they have their friend group to rely on. The Half of It, however, shows the other side of the coin: doing your own thing and just getting by. Living in a small town results in a smaller pool to choose friends from, and in some cases, no one around you leaves a meaningful impression. It’s reassuring to the audience to see the main character prefer to do things on their own, rather than being surrounded by people you don’t gain anything from emotionally.
Two Separate Worlds
The Half of It does a superb job of emphasizing the difference between one’s school and home life. Movies too often blend these two worlds, maybe unintentionally, making the two feel intertwined. The setting at Ellie’s school life is over-hyped. Colors are vibrant and chatter is buzzing. I think that’s how most people feel while they’re at school. Everywhere you turn someone is doing something so exciting and interesting with their life. People have their friends and their clubs; they’re doing something. It can make you feel like you’re not doing enough. Things can start to feel unreal, somewhat fake; you can’t quite grasp anything around you. And then it goes to a scene to Ellie at home with her dad. Things are quieter and the colors are muted. You feel a grounding presence. Nothing that just went on during her eight-hour school day matters here. She eats dinner with her father as they watch tv. There’s no pressure to succeed. There’s no pressure to be anything. The only thing Ellie must do in her home life is exist.
Most coming of age films are set in small towns. I think this is because teenagers living in these towns are so underexposed to the real world. The only thing they know is this town they’ve lived in their whole life. Living in the suburbs is practically living in a bubble, a protected one, that is. If you’re constantly surrounded by the same people you get exhausted. Just how one would need a change of scenery, sometimes one can need a change of environment. A rotation, per se, of people. You need space and air from those you don’t have a say in being around all the time. Some may never find their people in these secluded towns. That’s what I think makes for such an interesting story. Someone living in a town where they have formed no true connections with anybody — it leaves a type of burning desire to leave. These characters, but also people we see ourselves in, have to remain still. They have to continue doing the mundane everyday things. We’re trying to see how they do it; how do they get by? And once they’re finally finished, when they’re finally free, we as an audience feel a sense of euphoria. We get to live through these characters’ escapes.
The Unawkward Introvert
Ellie Chu is an introvert, but not the kind you’d expect. Ellie’s only socialization with her other classmates is when she writes essays for them. Her only friend at her school is her English teacher (Becky Ann Baker). Ellie doesn’t participate in school events and she doesn’t have a flourishing social life. It’s not because she doesn’t know how to speak to people. She’s not afraid of others. We as an audience, are used to seeing the uncomfortable book-worm introverts that stutter over their words. Ellie knows how to talk to others, but that doesn’t mean she wants to, or even has to. The Half of It provides us with a realistic example of an introvert: someone who doesn’t need the accompaniment of others when it is not desired.
The Half of It is a beautiful movie that a lot of us were longing for without realizing it. There is no other film like it. While still providing elements of romanticism, The Half of It isn’t what you’d expect. I would recommend anyone who’s a sucker for movies that try to make sense of the whole “feeling out of place in a small town” motif to watch The Half of It. There’s no better time to watch this brilliant film than in quarantine.