By: Kate Olivares, Peak Associate
Time and time again, we are shown that coming-of-age movies have so much more to offer beyond love triangles between straight white teenagers (looking at you, John Hughes). There is so much space for other stories to be told within this genre, from different perspectives on class, race, gender, or sexuality. In The Half of It, Netflix’s latest coming of age comedy-drama, we are treated to a sweet and refreshing take on friendship, love, and expectation.
Paul Munsky, a sweet jock, approaches Ellie Chiu, an introverted straight-A student, to help him write a love letter to the beautiful Aster Flores. Unbeknownst to Paul, Ellie is also in love with Aster, and her ghostwriting duties for Paul start to take on a life of its own. As Paul and Ellie grow closer as friends, Ellie’s own feelings for Aster begin to intensify and further dictate her actions. She begins to blur the lines between ghostwriting Paul’s letters to trying to get closer to Aster through Paul as a medium. How long can she keep all of these secrets?
With the backdrop of this classic coming-of-age kerfuffle, the film explores exciting themes: queer love, the immigrant experience, and the evolving nature of language and communication. Queer girl stories are grossly underrepresented in the coming-of-age genre, but this film portrays this one beautifully. Ellie’s feelings for Aster are handled respectfully, and her unlikely friendship with Paul is a delight to witness. Lastly, the understated cinematography is fantastic. Small-town Squahamish, the movie’s setting, is green and crisp.
However, because the movie explores such a wide range of complicated themes, not all of them get their due course, or are given the time to develop and get resolved. For such a loveable friend character, Paul’s dreams and motivations fade into the background in service of concluding the main story. Moreover, it was disappointing to see that Aster isn’t given the time to be interesting in her own right. The extent of her depth is expressed through being smart and philosophical behind her pretty face. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but because Ellie and Paul both transcend the tropes of coming-of-age characters (Ellie is quiet and shy, but queer; Paul is athletic and ditsy, but kind) it was disappointing to find nothing more behind Aster’s character. She is beautiful, smart, and that’s pretty much it.
There have also been thoughtful criticisms from some parts of the Asian queer community on how the film perpetuates rape culture. I want to respectfully engage with this point, beginning with the non-consensual romantic acts. It is a sad reality that stolen kisses and surprise touches are normalized in our culture’s idea of romance. These little acts of normalization can perpetuate rape culture, and they should be abolished. However, I do not think that these non-consensual acts ultimately convey love in this movie. The film itself clearly rejects the identity of a love story. It illustrates that love is messy and difficult, and during its emotional climax, the characters come to the painful realization that all of their ideas surrounding romance and partnership are skewed and wrong. With the exception of one instance, the film does not reward these problematic displays of romance, but condemns them.
On the whole, this movie is beautiful, compassionate, and smart. It makes it clear that there are infinite ways to portray Asian stories, and we must demand to see more of them. It absolutely deserves to place among other Netflix darlings like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. My parting plea is for you to watch it, and join me in anticipating what writer-director Alice Wu will do next.