“This is not a love story.”
That declaration by high school senior Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) at the start of Netflix’s “The Half of It” is half-true. At least, it’s not the kind of love story we’re used to seeing in a teen romantic comedy.
There’s a moment halfway through the film where Ellie is standing in a thrift store, wearing clothes all wrong for her and asking her new friend how he knows when a girl wants to be kissed. It’s a question spoken methodically, as if Ellie is trying to understand the answer to a test that she’s been told she should be studying for her entire life.
It’s also a question that might read like a familiar trope ― the “popular guy teaches a not-popular girl how to be popular and then they fall in love” story that dominated the rom-coms of my tween and teen years, offering a sort of aspirational look at what might happen to any girl, no matter their social status. But “The Half of It” isn’t that kind of love story. Instead, it tells the Cyrano-esque tale of a Chinese American teenager in a tiny town who is hired by a jock to woo the school’s popular girl by writing letters ostensibly from the jock. The twist: The letter writer who also has feelings for the popular girl is another girl.
While there’s been considerable progress made in Hollywood over the last few years when it comes to representing Asian Americans on screen, there’s also been valid criticism over the lack of diversity in those narratives. The community we call Asian America is complex and nuanced, and there’s no one way to portray the experience of the entire diaspora. So it’s significant that at the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re getting a film that not only centers an LGBTQ Asian American protagonist but tells a broader kind of love story.
Ultimately, “The Half of It” is also about the love between two friends and how that can break down emotional barriers. When Ellie asks what leads to a kiss, the intention behind the question has nothing to do with her trying to mimic the actions of others in order to fit in or get the guy (or, in this case, the girl). It’s genuine curiosity aimed at an unlikely new friend because, at that point, she hasn’t felt the urge to kiss anyone herself.
“The Half of It” is writer-director Alice Wu’s first film since “Saving Face,” her groundbreaking 2004 work that featured two lesbian Chinese American characters. It’s a film that I didn’t have the chance to see in high school as I was working through feeling like the odd one in my family and among my friends.
As I watched Ellie move through this story, I understood her in a way that I’d never really understood films like “She’s All That” or “10 Things I Hate About You.” I never had anyone tell me I was pretty — or try to switch my glasses for contacts to prove it — nor did I really care if anyone did. I didn’t have lengthy conversations about my feelings with my family and I was tasked with household errands that required a stronger grasp of English than my parents’. And, sometimes, before I really realized I was bisexual, I would find myself staring too long at the popular blond girl in the back of the classroom.
There’s a hunger that I think we all share to see our lives represented in some form on screen. It’s validating to know that the things we thought isolated us can actually be a way to connect with people who are like us.
Just like Ellie, I never really viewed myself as a romantic, but that doesn’t mean either of us was heartless. Ellie is intelligent and sarcastic and spends her evenings eating dinner in front of the TV with her father, with whom she communicates in Mandarin. She reads obscure novels and drinks Yakult and cares little for small talk. Ellie is expressive in her writing about the things she cares about — and to the people she cares about. She’s passionate in a world where passion can be narrowly defined, and where dating and love are points on a teen timeline that she’s never really been a part of.
Even though it’s been more than 10 years since my time in high school, I’m still searching for stories that would have made my teenage self feel seen. If I had a film like “The Half of It” growing up, then maybe I would’ve felt less like an outsider for not dating or falling in love the way others seemed to. And maybe I would’ve been able to see that there were others like me.
But now is better than never, and as more films are made representing diverse experiences, I’m hopeful for the greater connections and more diverse love stories they will inspire too.
“The Half Of It” starts streaming Friday, May 1, on Netflix.