By Crystal Bell
Director Alice Wu knows the power of a deadline. If her years as a software engineer for Microsoft taught her anything, it’s that true efficiency is achieved through self-imposed stress (and better time management skills, but that’s besides the point). In late 2016, she applied that knowledge to a script she had been mulling over for months. The filmmaker cut a check for $1,000, sent it to a trusted friend, and made them promise: If she didn’t finish the draft in five weeks, the money would be donated to the National Rifle Association. The guilt, coupled with constant pressure from her close circle of progressive friends, was just the motivation she needed to finish it.
So in a weird way, Wu has the NRA to thank for what would eventually become The Half of It.
The charm of the Netflix film is that it focuses on what most high school movies don’t: the bottled-up resentment towards family, friends, and circumstances brought on by the idea that you need to have your whole life figured out by graduation. Ellie Chu is a sharp, bookish senior who’s floated through high school without making any lasting friendships. She hates attention, and her only real companion is her jaded English teacher. But Ellie is content to exist on the periphery, making cash where she can by writing her classmates’ essays and helping her Chinese immigrant, single father adapt to life in smalltown America. She harbors a secret crush on Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the school’s atypical “It” girl. She’s smart, funny, well-read, and beautiful. So it’s no surprise when the adorably awkward Paul (Daniel Diemer), a jock with a golden heart and an adventurous palate, also catches feelings for her — and he hires Ellie to help him woo his dream girl through a series of love letters and texts.
Yes, it’s a modern riff on the classic Cyrano tale, a Victorian-era French play in which an uncomely poet woos his dream girl with the help of a handsome man, but The Half of It isn’t a typical young-adult romance. “It’s a little bit more melancholy,” Wu tells MTV News. “It’s set during that period in high school where feelings are very raw, and things are awkward and funny, but there’s also just this deep sense of loneliness that I think pervades that time.”
It’s a familiar theme for Wu, whose strength as a storyteller is her tender, humanist approach. She released her first — and only other — film, Saving Face, nearly 16 years ago. Written for her mother, the multilingual rom-com is loosely inspired by her own coming out as a lesbian to her traditional Chinese family. “I was trying to find a way for my mind to understand,” she says. “She knew I was gay, but it was not a comfortable topic for her.” Wu’s fictional proxy, Wil (Michelle Krusciec), is a young, witty Asian-American surgical resident who’s done everything to make her widowed mother (Joan Chen) proud except for the one thing that really matters: finding a suitable Chinese man to marry. But as much as Saving Face is a love story between pragmatic Wil and confident Vivian (Lynn Chen), it’s also a tale of mothers and daughters — of flawed people with good intentions “trying to do the best with what they believe is the best out there,” Wu says.
The same thing applies to the personae dramatis of The Half of It. “In another movie, [Ellie and Wil] would not be the main characters,” she says. “Maybe they’d be side characters. Maybe they’d be extras. Maybe they’re not even in the movie, but I’ve made them the main characters. And that’s in part because I believe we’re all more similar than we’re different. You could strip away race or gender identity, our sexuality, our ethnicity, where we think we’re from, our class backgrounds. If you strip all that stuff away, I think that, fundamentally, most people want the same things. We want to love. We want to be loved. We want to belong, whatever that feels like. We want some sense of purpose in our lives. It’s mainly those sorts of things that we’re all striving for.”
As protagonists, Wil and Ellie are cut from the same cloth. And if you’re lucky enough to know Wu, then that cloth (typically cotton, usually plaid) will probably look familiar. “I’ve never had a single [friend] watch one of my movies and not at the end be like, ‘Yeah, your actor’s basically doing you. It’s exactly you,'” she says. “My costume designers on both films basically started picking clothes that I wore.” Wil and Ellie are clever and practical to a fault and uncomfortable in their bodies, and Wu is self-aware enough to know that this isn’t purely the act of her subconscious. (Though, she admits, “Nobody wants to think they’re that narcissistic.”) Her characters are pieces of her, physical and emotional reflections of her thoughts and insecurities.
“My characters are essentially repressed Asian nerds,” she says with a laugh.
Wu writes from an emotional place. Saving Face was influenced by her desire to connect with her mother, and The Half of It was written with another goal entirely: to pen a coming-of-age narrative that ends at the beginning. Saving Face finds Wu grappling with coming out to her family; The Half of It is Wu coming out to herself. And that singular loneliness — when you don’t feel like you know anyone, especially yourself — is what permeates Ellie’s story.
“Neither of my films are about getting the girl,” she notes. Rather, The Half of It is intimately introspective. Inspired by Wu’s own teenage tumult, it depicts the unlikely friendship between closeted, eloquent Ellie and the last person she’d become close to: straight, white, tongue-tied Paul. It was personal for Wu, who found her own Paul as a teenager when she needed him most. “At that point my parents were not speaking to me,” she recalls. “I was deeply terrified when I came out to myself because I didn’t know any gay people. And to have this friendship with this guy who didn’t treat me any differently, [who] just accepted me as I was, was an amazing thing.”
The Half of It, she says, was born out of a lingering question: “What happens if you meet your soulmate, only you have no desire to have sex with them?”
To illustrate her point, Wu uses Plato’s Symposium as a clever framing device. The Greek text details the myth that humans were born with four legs, four arms, and a head with two faces. One day, in a fit of jealousy, Zeus tore us in two, and now romantic love between two people is the only thing that can make us whole again. The Half of It, however, doesn’t deal with such a stringent binary. Paul says it himself: There are so many ways to love. It’s not that we’re destined to walk the earth desperately searching for our other half; but rather, there are people who come into our lives — sometimes fleetingly — to give us the tools we need to make ourselves whole again.
“The search is great, but we have to realize that it’s not about them finding love,” Wu says. “It’s literally that search that causes us to reach for people. And when you reach for people, you have a chance at growth. This movie is really about three people who collide, and as a result, each ends up learning something about themselves.”
Wu and her friend lost touch after high school. There were tears and heartache. But the nights they spent talking about things a lot bigger than themselves — the universe and where they fit into it; computer science and probabilities; how to win over a girl — shaped her for years to come. And they still influence her now. The Half of It is her catharsis.
So, as Ellie gets on that train in the film’s final scene, headed toward her future, a future that might not include Paul at all, it’s bittersweet. But that’s just how Wu likes it.
“I always joke that I make the kind of comedy where I hope you cry at least once,” she says. “If you haven’t cried, then I failed.”
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