Ellie Chu is so smart that she can write multiple papers on the same topic and make each one fresh. Of course, that also means she’s cheating, or rather helping others to cheat (the same thing, really), but her English teacher doesn’t mind because otherwise, as she confesses, she’d have to read the pathetic attempts of each student to express themselves on the page. Writing is not all that Ellie is good at, but it’s what she’s known for in her high school in the remote rural town of Squahamish, Washington, filled with folks who mostly otherwise ignore her, except when they require her skills.
She does it for the money, as her depressed widowed father can hardly motivate himself to do much of anything since her mother died. They emigrated form China years ago, yet the only job he was able to get with his engineering degree was as a manager of a train-cargo line, the duties of which Ellie now also performs. Life appears pretty bleak for her, even though college beckons (she plans to attend a nearby institution, however). Until, that is, local lunkhead Paul Munsky hires her to write a love letter from him to his crush, Aster Flores. Do I sense budding romance? Not so fast, for as Ellie tells us in melancholy voiceover right at the start, “This is not a love story. Nobody gets what they want.”
Such is the setup of writer/director Alice Wu’s delightful coming-of-age tale The Half of It in which, true, no one may get what they want, but they do, kind of, get what they need. Starring Leah Lewis (The CW’s Nancy Drew) as Ellie, Daniel Diemer (Bloody Blacksmith) as Paul and Alexxis Lemire (The Art of Murder) as Aster, the film is extremely fortunate in its three leads, all of whom bring a range of subtle dimensions to their characters. Wu (Saving Face) has not only cast well, but is gifted with a sharp sense of pacing and tone, switching between scenes of high humor and deep pathos with ease. It’s a charming experience, through and through.
But it is not a simplistic one, for nothing goes quite as planned. Ellie, it seems, has a longstanding crush on Aster, herself, which complicates matters. And then there’s Paul, who starts out as a potentially one-note moron, yet quickly reveals depths of his own. Soon, a genuine friendship blossoms between the two, he convincing her to try his (to him) famed recipe for “taco sausage,” something he has been trying to convince his old-school meat-vending family to adopt in their business, and she bringing him home to spend time watching classic movies with her father (his lone pastime). Each letter she writes brings him closer to Aster, yet the real obstacle to overcome is when he and Aster actually meet in person, for then he reverts to his tongue-tied self, nothing like the poet she thinks he is, thanks to Ellie.
Aster, herself, it turns out, is a more than deserving object of fascination for the two main protagonists, possessed of her own specific wants and desires that fly in the face of what her preacher father wants for her. She and Ellie share a genuine bond, even if Aster doesn’t realize it. Slowly, minute by minute, the movie inches towards what we guess must eventually be a big three-way reveal: that Paul doesn’t write, that Ellie likes Aster, and that . . . well, for that third part, you’ll just have to watch.
It’s worth it. For The Half of It offers a beautiful, nonjudgmental narrative where what matters is personal agency for all, regardless of circumstance, and where maybe, just maybe, good people will triumph, even if the victory is not what they expected. We all merit at least half that much.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)