The Half Of It is not the kind of teenage romance we’re used to. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a small town high school outcast but for the fact that she writes term papers for hire and nearly all of the student body has bought an essay or two from her. She is the most well-rounded teenager you’ll ever meet; she works hard, studies hard, writes eloquently, plays several instruments and composes music, she knows old movies and French philosophers and somehow manages to keep her household running. In service of this last item, she breaks her own rule and accepts a different kind of paid writing assignment – a love letter from shy jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) to the school’s prettiest girl, a pastor’s daughter, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), who is already dating the school’s most popular jerk-off. Normally Ellie would refuse on moral grounds, but the electric company’s put the squeeze on so she accepts, unable to anticipate the complicated web she’s just started spinning.
Basically: Ellie’s letters are a little too convincing. A few are exchanged back and forth, and both parties, Aster and Ellie-as-Paul, are literary junkies and deep thinkers, and there are plenty of sparks on the page. But when Aster agrees to meet Paul in person, he comes off as a bit of a dud. He’s a nice guy, but he’s got nothing but blank stares rather than banter. The chemistry from their letters seems to dissipate in person. But Ellie keeps saving things with witty texts and thoughtful letters, so Aster’s falling for the Paul on the page, who is actually Ellie, while Paul is starting to feel like maybe he likes Ellie rather than Aster, and Ellie is starting to wonder if maybe she likes Aster. Like, like likes Aster.
Which is why I say this isn’t the kind of teen romance we grew up on. It isn’t light hearted fun, or sexy cat and mouse. It’s a rather mature meeting of minds, a slow-burn wooing. And Ellie is a new kind of 21st century protagonist who never needs to take off her glasses and let down her hair to be appreciated. She can be our hero just as she is, in overalls and chapped lips. She doesn’t have to play dumb or be oversexualized.
Sean felt the movie was slow to get going and a bit of a drag but I really felt refreshed by this story line, by the credit writer-director Alice Wu gives to her characters. And by turning the film into a tribute to all kinds of love, including platonic, she brings an emotional complexity to the concept of soulmates is are rarely if ever witnessed in a teen rom-com. The future isn’t just female: it’s queer, it’s intellectual, it’s responsible, it’s proud to be different. And isn’t that inspiring?