‘The Half of It’ and the Language of Love

Alice Wu’s second feature film is about finding the right words.

“In case you haven’t noticed, this is not a love story” declares Ellie Chu within the first thirty seconds of The Half of It. The rest of the film traces her exploring, understanding, deconstructing, and in turn, discovering love alongside the other characters. The Half of It is ‘mainstream’, which is to say that it belongs to the tradition of teen rom-com dramas, and yet  its storytelling is beautifully singular. The story follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a studious and shy Chinese-American immigrant, who has built a business writing papers for her classmates. She is approached by her neighbour Paul (Daniel Diemer) to help him write a love letter to his crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire).

The title of the film is inspired by Plato’s extensively romanticised notion of an initially androgynous human race—possessing both sets of sexual organs, two faces, four hands, and four legs. The Gods were nervous about their power and decided to cut them in two. Since then, each of the halves has longed for its other half, waiting for it to come around. When they find each other, their wounds heal and they are once again complete. 

This idea of completing one other is not new to the rom-com genre. In this theme, love is not about the journey but the destination; it pays less attention to the present  and often fantasises  about the ‘happily ever after.’ Director Alice Wu uses a similar template but restrains from giving into the trope. Instead, she envisions a romance where three high-schoolers try to come up with their own language of love and longing which is not grand but “messy, horrible, selfish…and bold,” and complicates the “other half”. 

Ellie’s approach towards language is to hide behind it, rather than express herself through it. She is good with words but does not possess any of her own. She can tell you what Plato thinks of ‘eros’, but won’t divulge what her own views. In the letter to Aster, she writes words by Wim Wenders. Aster catches the plagiarism and challenges Ellie to formulate her thoughts. Elle tells the truth, “If I knew what love was, I would quote myself.” 

In our adolescence, we are often nudged into existing in boxes. Even before we can question who we are, we are aware of who we are supposed to be. Aster is well aware of the cage she is trapped inside. She is a pretty girl with a perfect life. The inadequacy of her flawless life haunts her. “I am like a lot of people”, she says sadly, “which makes me kind of a no one.” She tells Ellie that the difference between a good painting and a great painting is typically five bold strokes. Aster is in the good painting, but is she bold enough to ruin it to get to the great one? Ellie, on the other hand, has never wondered about “the oppression of fitting in.” She thinks being different frees you of expectations to be like anyone else. Aster challenges her once more, “Doesn’t everyone think they are different, but pretty much we’re all different in the same way?” At this moment, the labels of characters slip away, rendering them naked. If they are stripped of their markers, then it’s safe to say that the most sexually heightened scenes are actually the ones of deep connection and intimacy. One such scene is when Ellie and Aster float in a pool of water, talking about loneliness and God, and the faint sound of music smoothly fills up the space created by their occasional silence. They exist in the alternate reality of their letters, talking about everything and nothing. 

Texting is a rampant new means of romantic declarations. Emojis and ellipses can hold as much meaning and pleasure as looking into each other’s eyes and holding hands. When Aster kisses Paul, it is more to see if the words in his letters align with the real-life desire; if the language to express love equates to love itself. In our digital lives, it becomes even easier to pretend to be someone else. When Ellie sees that Paul (who’s not great with words, either) and Aster’s date is not going well, she intervenes, posing as Paul.  She texts from afar and watches Aster blush, deriving a deep satisfaction. The intimacy here is not of the heart, as Paul desires, but of the mind. Their long musings and literary references give both Aster and Ellie the freedom to be anybody and to be themselves. In their correspondence, the duplicity slips away to give way to genuine human connection. Their words challenge each other, keep them on their toes, and are potentially ‘unsafe.’

Both Paul and Ellie live in boxes of their own: trying to defy suburban conditioning to reach their authentic selves, daring to create a language that will define them on their terms. Paul lives in the basement and Ellie lives in the attic and both meet in the middle. Their language is one of understanding and is contrastingly, not ‘unsafe’. He is aware of the song Ellie has not yet sung to the world, and Ellie is the only person who has ever eaten his new invention—‘taco sausage.’ 

Paul represents a more conventional vision of love. He believes that a girl and a boy meet each other, fall in love, and spend their lives adjusting to each other’s needs. After a disastrous first date between Paul and Aster, Ellie frustratingly implies that there is no similarity between them “There are no points for effort”, she says dismissively. “Isn’t that what love is?”  Paul says in a matter-of-fact tone, “How much effort do you put into loving someone?” Ellie is both confused and convinced. It is not surprising to see that Paul kisses Ellie later. He mistakes his increasing familiarity with Ellie as a sign of falling in love with her. When Paul realizes that Ellie likes Aster, in his silent fury he tells her it is a sin, that she will go to hell. It is striking that sitting inside a conservative church, Paul has an awakening. He realizes that there is no single right way of loving someone, “I don’t want to be the guy who stops loving someone for loving the way they want to love.” 

Ellie, at one point in the film, mocks a movie scene from a Bollywood film in which the hero is running after the train, trying to stop the love of his life, “Who outruns trains?” she asks incredulously. The scene is recreated at the end when Ellie is leaving for college. Paul chases after the train while she is sitting inside, tears silently streaming down her face. Wu cleverly tells the audience that they have been looking at the wrong picture all along. At the same time, one is really not sure what the right picture is, because the parallel storylines of these three teens never intersect at a climax, failing to reveal their motives or aspirations. Instead of mounting tension, the film grows languid.

Having said that, Wu’s film thoroughly explores notions of kinship and belonging. The most fleshed-out relationship in the story is between Ellie and Paul subtly implying that perhaps the greatest romance of Ellie’s life is their friendship itself. Maybe you don’t have to be in love with each other to love each other. Maybe the idea is not to have someone who completes you, but who helps you complete yourself. Maybe The Half of It is not a love story; but that doesn’t mean it is not a story about love.

Shanna Jain
Shanna Jain
Shanna is pursuing her Masters in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In her free time, she is either deconstructing a film or listening to Taylor Swift.