The Netflix film The Half of It (2020) is set in the little town of Squahamish, Washington, where everyone knows everybody and if you are different you stick out like a sore thumb. Ellie Chu is the only Asian kid in the town. She is hardworking and talented. She plays the piano and is studious. She has a roaring business writing essays for her classmates who do not really make friends with her because she is ‘different’. In fact, most of the time when she cycles back home after school, some of the kids call her names and make fun of her. So she makes herself invisible, quietly goes about her daily routine and does not do anything to draw attention to herself.
Ellie Chu lives with her dad who is the station master of their small town. Her mother died a few years earlier, resulting in her father completely withdrawing into his shell, not wanting to be social, and never making any effort to speak or learn English. Ellie at the age of 13 had to grow up quickly and took over his duties flagging off the trains twice a day, every day. She and her father have a routine where they have dinner together and watch old romantic movies.
One day she gets a strange request from footballer Paul Munsky to write a love letter to a newcomer, Aster Flores, the preacher’s daughter. Paul is smitten with Aster because of her beauty and wants to express his love for her but is at a loss for words. He decides to ask Ellie to help him because her writing skills are impressive. Initially Ellie refuses as she finds the thought of writing to Aster about Paul’s feelings strange, but then, because she needs the money to pay utility bills, she agrees. Paul is so desperate that he agrees to pay fifty dollars for the letter.
As Ellie thinks about what to write, she observes Aster and finds that she is not just beautiful but also intelligent. She is well-read, an artist, and is willing to engage in a substantive conversation about books, films and philosophy. Though she is the girlfriend of the most popular and richest boy in town, Trig, Aster feels uncomfortable and a bit of a misfit amongst his friends who value good looks and popularity more than intelligence. Yet there is an expectation to conform and everyone expects her to marry Trig because he is rich and good looking, whilst never really asking for her opinion.
One letter turns into a series of letters and text messages between Ellie (posing as Paul) and Aster. Through this correspondence the two establish a bond of attraction, belonging and longing. Paul is the misfit here because he cannot verbally have the same conversation with Aster as he purportedly has in the text messages. He insists that Ellie add emojis to the text messages but she doesn’t because she does not understand them; ironically this lack of emojis adds to the depth of the discussion for Aster. Whilst Ellie and Aster are growing closer through the correspondence, Paul is getting closer to Ellie, spending long hours with her, initially to discuss the letters but eventually just getting to know her, her father, and their culture. Paul is truly the first friend Ellie has in Squahamish. Whilst he is not expressive with words, he has a heart of gold, constantly defending Ellie from bullies and standing up for her. He learns to dig deep and have meaningful relationships whilst she learns to open up and trust people. He also benefits from her company, taking an interest in literature that was beyond him, improving his running to keep up with her cycling and just being focussed on what he wants out of life.
The movie is beautiful because it brings out the insecurities of teenagers who want to fit in with the world around them and are confused about their feelings which might be the diametrical opposite of what is socially expected. For example, Paul wants to be with Aster but he is constantly drawn to Ellie and is confused. He actually realises even before Ellie does, that she might be attracted to Aster and has developed a crush on her. As Ellie becomes deeply aware of her attraction towards Aster she is willing to own it and probably does not feel afraid to break the norm as she is an atheist (living in a God-fearing small town) and is used to being alone. Aster on the other hand, realises she feels an attraction towards Ellie, and suspects she is the writer of the letters, but is afraid to own her feelings. She is the pastor’s daughter and knows that everyone wants her to marry Trig. She is afraid to say no to him and also afraid to announce that she might be attracted to a woman. In the final church scene, when Trig surprises her with a proposal in front of the congregation, she meekly nods her head in acceptance. But then she is surprised by Paul challenging the idea of love and Ellie jumping in to remind her: why settle for a good painting when you can experiment and innovate and make it great? This is a powerful scene because it brings together the nuances of love and friendship between Aster, Ellie and Paul. Paul stands up for Ellie amongst the congregation in the church and announces that he “sees her” whilst Ellie nudges Aster to assert herself which she ends up doing in private. Aster finally asks Ellie to give her two years to figure it all out and hopes that in the meantime she will become independent enough to take a stand.
The movie is even more beautiful because several of the characters make an effort to “see the other” for who they are. Paul learns to make Chinese braised pork the traditional way from Ellie’s dad and appreciate it whilst he introduces them to sausage tacos which are his family’s signature dish made according to their own recipe. Ellie appreciates Paul even though he comes across as quite unintelligent and helps him become confident enough to date Aster. She does not judge him. The teacher at school sees Ellie’s potential, takes an interest in her studies, is keen that Ellie apply for one of the best colleges and gives her the college application to fill in.
During the last few years, many young people have struggled to ‘find themselves’ and be comfortable in owning their sexuality. The pandemic did not make it easy as many live in families that are homophobic or do not “see them” in the way they would like to be seen. Through our various programmes on college campuses, youth often tell us how difficult it is to connect with their families on the topic of sex, sexuality and harmful gender norms. In many cases they are shut down and their freedoms further restricted, thus affecting their mental health. They feel alienated, lonely and unloved.
Movies like The Half of It might be a good teaching tool for parents to have a conversation with their children on being seen and navigating through various emotional periods of their life. It also emphasises that love is never perfect and our search for the perfect partner is impossible. As Ellie says “Love is messy and horrible and selfish… and bold”.