REFLECTIONS ON ALICE WU’S “THE HALF OF IT”
Feature photo courtesy of @leahmlewis
Love is indefinite.
In 10th grade, my English teacher gave our class a piece of advice: to fall in love in high school, to feel love at the rare intersection of peak hormone levels and carefree lives unburdened by adult responsibilities. Love would, he warned, be different once we were older, perhaps even lesser.
Without thinking too much about whatever diluted version of love he implied would be in my future, I set my mind to finding love at fifteen, as if I needed any more assurance that it was the most noble, worthwhile pursuit for a teenage girl. At that age, love feels splendidly big, like a concept with endless possibilities, made so desirable and meaningful by its perceived attainability. It was the only sort of magic I had a chance of grasping. That’s probably why we (as in me) breathlessly stream each of Netflix’s teenage rom-coms, living vicariously through one delicious pairing after another The latest of their releases, The Half of It, offers a unique, pleasant twist to the typical formula, still longing towards the allure of a happy ending-- but without romantic love.
The Half of It, directed by Alice Wu, explores the love triangle between Ellie, a Chinese-American high school senior living in the very small, religious, white, town of Squahamish, Paul (a Noah Centineo-esque, innocent but athletic white guy), and Aster, the most popular girl in school. Let’s get the obvious rom-com plot points out of the way: Paul “loves” the very pretty and very popular Aster but has no game, and so enlists Ellie for her help. With said help, Paul succeeds in winning Aster’s affection; however, the time that Paul and Ellie spend together causes Paul to care for Ellie and then he falls for her. Now here’s the delicious ~twist~ : Ellie actually has a crush on Aster and doesn’t fall for Paul! Instead, she opens herself to him as a friend and begins to harbor a blossoming love as she gets to know Aster (while impersonating Paul...Sarah Burgess, anyone?). Through this experience, these kids learn a few things about love--“[it] is messy, and horrible, and selfish, and bold.”
Love, especially in high school, is something you think comes naturally, easily, almost matter-of-factly. We accept that it is one of few things we allow to defy all sense, expectation, and rationale - in fact, that’s what makes it intriguing. This childlike perception is embodied in Paul’s naivete throughout the film. There are two scenes specifically that hilariously juxtapose each other, reminding the audience that these kids are just kids (aka dumb but, like, ?kind of? Understandably, endearingly so). In the first, Paul tells Ellie he kissed Aster and Ellie immediately asks, “how did you know she wanted you to kiss her?” Paul explains that she gave him “the look” (I know you know the look). Well, I thought he meant the look as in the moment you both look into each other’s eyes and it feels like the world is just the two of you and you both smile or lean in and are most definitely, at the very LEAST, aware that a kiss is coming. Later in the film when Paul decides to kiss Ellie, we find out that what he actually meant was: he’s a guy, she’s a girl, and they enjoy spending time together so they should kiss, and she should want it too. As someone who watched that awkward moment, I can confirm-- Ellie def did not give “the look”; the girl was too busy harvesting all the yakult from a vending machine to even register that Paul was trying to talk to her!! Obviously what Paul did was not okay but the key takeaway is that, as unfortunate as it is, we understand why Paul thought he liked Ellie even though he claimed to love Aster; boys and girls are taught that they can’t be just friends so he mistakes his affection for her as romantic love. Though he doesn’t take Ellie’s rejection well at first, he redeems himself by getting over his big stupid boy ego and realizes that he can love Ellie appropriately as a friend.
Ellie’s experience of love wasn’t as easy. For one, she’s a girl crushing on the daughter of the town’s pastor, and two, she’s too busy working, taking care of her dad, and getting straight As to even consider dating. But no surprise, love takes a hold of the teenage heart and mind like no other emotion. I won’t take you through how she falls in love with Aster but you can imagine how it must have felt: overwhelming, exciting, poetic. You might be rooting for her to get with the girl, for the two of them to fall in love and become (probably) the first interracial couple and (definitely) the first same-sex couple in Squahamish. But Wu serves us yet another wonderful twist: no one ends up with anyone! Ellie packs her bags and gets the hell out of Squahamish and takes her big beautiful brain to college!! Where she will hopefully/probably finally meet other Asians!! She’s done it; she’s experienced her first love, learned from it, and is ready to move on to broaden her horizon.
Though I don’t quite know why my 10th grade English teacher advised us to fall in love basically ASAP at age 15, I am grateful that he did. Because, like Ellie, I realized for myself that love is messy, selfish, horrible, and bold. But now that I’m older, I’ve realized that love is less a reflection of age and more of a product of experience and circumstance: it’s unique not because you’re fifteen, but because you’re feeling it for the first time and all you know is your little town and the same group of people you grew up with. When your world is small, love feels big, so big that it overwhelms you and you think it’s the most you’ll ever feel. But love is no longer messy to me, or selfish, or horrible. Like the movie, I’ve concluded that there is in fact no conclusion; love is indefinite--what it is will change as I experience it. And that’s a good thing - the best thing, in fact.