Alice Wu’s new queer coming-of-age film, The Half of It (released May 1 on Netflix), follows two high school seniors -- queer booksmart Chinese American Ellie Chu and straight white jock Paul Munsky -- as their lives intersect in the small fictional rural town of Squahamish, Washington. As Paul asks Ellie to write love letters to a girl -- Aster Flores -- they both like, their narratives begin to come together in an unexpected way as they grow closer. Wu depicts Ellie and Paul as deeply interwoven into the landscape of Squahamish, Washington, their vastly different identities not merely bound to sexuality and race, but also encompassing and exploring aspects including religion, family history, heritage, and language. In The Half of It, Wu doesn’t merely queer the rom-com format, but also utilizes these parallel narratives to intersectionally explore a variety of identities with queerness as a channel into their genre-defying platonic relationship.
Although Ellie’s and Paul’s motivations are initially exceedingly different, the two teenagers are united by their mutual attraction to Aster. The Half of It then immediately reveals a unique and unconventionally queer premise within a genre and structure that leaves little room for anything beyond the heterosexual expectations laid before. Their mutual interest lays the groundwork for their strong platonic bond between characters who are traditionally predestined as romantic interests. At the start of the film, Paul’s short- and long-term desires are apparently one-tracked: He seeks a way to grow closer to Aster romantically, while his career goal is to continue his family’s sausage business in Squahamish. Ellie’s actions are similarly driven in an independently-minded manner: She single-handedly supports her widowed Chinese immigrant father by acting as a signalman for the town’s train station and handling household duties. As such, she keeps her head down to get through school and to maintain her side hustle of ghost-writing school essays for her peers.
Ellie first agrees to write love letters to Aster on behalf of Paul after learning that her house’s electricity will be shut off if the bill isn’t paid. However, although she continues to get paid by Paul, Ellie’s crush on Aster is what first permits their relationship to blossom and grow beyond purely a business transaction: Aster’s eager responses to Ellie’s contemplative letters are what motivate the latter to continue the scheme. When Paul finally realizes Ellie’s romantic feelings for Aster, Ellie’s queerness is also ultimately what reveals Paul’s religiously-charged homophobic beliefs and forces him to confront them as they grow apart. However, the majority of the film intentionally leaves Ellie’s queer identity undiscussed within Paul and Ellie’s relationship, instead utilizing it as a channel into exploring other aspects of their identities -- as very different people brought together by a uniting factor.
With Paul’s and Ellie’s journeys now placed side by side, Wu highlights their differences and allows the audience to interrogate how their vastly different identities ultimately build the strong bond between them. The audience learns that both Paul and Ellie want to stay in Squahamish, for reasons that may, at first, seem superficially different, but have similar root intentions. Ellie feels familial responsibility to her father, whose English language skills are perceived as not being good enough for career advancement. Paul’s commitment to continuing the family business is revealed to be not out of convenience, but in order to continue making his family’s 49-year-old sausage recipe, which preserves the legacy of his grandmother, whose memory is precious to his mother. Ellie grows to respect and embrace Paul’s identity rather than perceive the business as simply an easy way out, eventually secretly writing letters on his behalf -- and of her own volition -- to food critics, encouraging them to try his prized creation, the “taco sausage.” Wu thus illuminates how each character’s familial devotion is affected and shaped by their identities in different ways, while ultimately developing a mutual respect for each other’s motivations.
Their views on religion are also heavily influenced by other aspects of their identity, with Ellie and Paul having very different relationships to Christianity. Although they both attend church, Paul’s sense of religion is portrayed as being rooted in his familial upbringing, while Ellie attends independently -- like all her other activities -- as the church pianist, even declaring partway through the film that she does not believe in God. Ellie and Paul frequently meet in the church pews -- and even the confessional -- to discuss their plans, a heavy sense of religious piety hanging over the heads of the eager teens. When Paul kisses Ellie and discovers her crush on Aster, his first reaction is to declare that Ellie’s queerness is a sin and that she’s going to hell, driven more by confusion and repeating what’s been told to him than by anger or defiance. Ellie, however, remains dumbstruck more than anything else, never denying her attraction to Aster throughout the entirety of the film. Paul is then silently forced into his own reckoning, required to rethink the value of losing the strength of his friendship with Ellie over his homophobic beliefs, but never previously having the opportunity to ever do so.
Paul’s and Ellie’s relationship further explores language as identity in both written and spoken form. The contents of Ellie’s letters to Aster written on behalf of Paul are frequently filled with flowery, poetic language, drawn from notable quotations or literature. This is a mystery to Paul, who himself prefers to use emoticons and other shorthand, while Ellie claims to not understand the usage of emojis. While Aster and Ellie’s own relationship forms over the complexity of language, Paul’s parallel plot forms with Ellie’s father over language beyond syntactical meaning. Ellie herself typically speaks Mandarin with her father, itself a core part of her identity and her family. But after Ellie notes that her father, a Chinese immigrant, doesn’t speak English very well, Paul jokes that he “[doesn’t] speak very good either.” The transcendence of language beyond traditional comprehension between Ellie’s father and Paul thus becomes a unique marker of their relationship. They share moments cooking together while bonding over the fusion of cultural foods and later, Ellie’s father shares a moment with Paul spoken exclusively in Mandarin, the understanding created by the strong emotions they both feel about Ellie.
In a typical heteronormative rom-com, once Paul falls for Ellie, Ellie would be the one to realize that she is also falling for Paul, the third party in the love triangle out of the picture. However, because viewers are privy to the knowledge that Ellie has feelings for Aster from the start, they can be drawn away from the necessity of a romantic relationship and into the reality of the platonic friendship between Paul and Ellie, itself a queering of a heteronormative relationship never required to transcend to romantic. Although The Half of It is branded as and contains many structural features of a rom-com, it’s clear from the start of the film that Ellie and Paul will not end up together, and nor -- in a radical move -- are they ever truly framed by Wu as even potential love interests. Rather, Ellie’s and Paul’s journeys and exploration of identities are marked and informed by their parallel paths together, navigating the highs and lows of high school in the fictional rural town of Squahamish, Washington.