Since it started streaming on May 1, both critics and audiences have praised “The Half of It” for being tender, charming, refreshing, smart, heartfelt, emotionally complex and fun.
“It treats teenagers with the sophistication they deserve,” said the New York Times. Rolling Stone called it, “a delightful YA rom-com.” Teen Vogue declared it “vital to the coming-of-age canon.”
But here’s the truth: It wasn’t supposed to be a teen movie.
When writer-director Alice Wu began writing the screenplay 10 years after the release of “Saving Face,” her 2004 feature-length debut, she wanted to explore the friendship between a lesbian girl and a straight guy in their 20s. It was inspired by her college best friend with whom she “bumbled through the odd terrain of ‘trying to get a girl.’” But success for him meant heartbreak for Wu—their friendship ended because his new girlfriend was threatened by their closeness.
“I don’t really write from a place where I take something that happened in my life and then literally write that. I find the emotional question I’m trying to answer and then I find a completely different plot to sort of play with,” Wu said in an interview over Google Hangouts.
But writing it proved to be challenging. “I realized that for whatever reasons, maybe because I was too close to it, that story felt unwieldy. At a certain point I thought, you know, I should just set this in high school.”
She added the Cyrano de Bergerac twist and soon, “The Half of It” was born—a story about Ellie Chu, a gifted but shy honor student, who is recruited by jock Paul Munsky to help him win over a girl that she secretly likes too. “It kind of took off and became its own thing. Paul is nothing like my best friend in college but I would say that the fact that these two ding-dongs are trying to figure out about love and have no idea what they’re talking about . . . that is very true. It was always gonna be a disaster, it was always gonna be a doomed quest,” Wu said.
Writing the beautifully nuanced characters was one thing, casting them was another. “I think I’m a bitch to cast for,” she said. “I’m super polite, but I’m very specific. I’m like, ‘Okay, great. Show me more people.’ I probably read 500 to 600 people for each of my three main roles.”
Wu had a nonnegotiable for casting the roles of Ellie, Paul and Aster Flores, the girl they like. “I wanted fresh faces . . . I wasn’t looking for stars. Honestly, there wouldn’t have been any stars to play Ellie anyway but there could have been stars for the other two and I didn’t want that. One of my touchstones is authenticity. I really wanted people to believe these kids exist. I didn’t want them to be, ‘Oh it’s that celebrity who’s playing this role.’”
That was one of the reasons she decided to work with Netflix, she said. “They would be a place that is okay with that.”
Leah Lewis (“Nancy Drew,” “Station 19”), who plays Ellie, fell in love with the script during the audition process. “I mean, Alice paints this small town of Squahamish to be its own living breathing thing and Ellie Chu was such an interesting character. It’s cool seeing the hero of the story have all these unconventional nonhero qualities: someone who doesn’t want to be the center of attention, someone who kind of does lay low . . . I just loved how rich these characters were.”
Lewis sent in a tape. “I went into this thinking that Ellie was a bit more confident and quirky and just out there.”
Wu said, “Her first read, I’m like, ‘Okay, this is wildly off from what I was expecting but man, this actor is so interesting to watch.’ And I think that is what I’m looking for. Because the reality is, the likelihood that someone is exactly like Ellie Chu who is also a good actor is pretty much nil . . . if you put Ellie Chu in a film, it would be a disaster.’”
Wu and Lewis worked together in finding the shy and confident Ellie in the exuberant and self-assured Leah. “Alice was able to kind of help me draw the similarities of the more quieter, observant, patient, internal parts of me and helped me naturally come to Ellie,” said Lewis.
“Leah has all these incredible talents—she’s beautiful, she can sing, she’s charismatic . . . these natural qualities have built up her confidence in a very earned way,” said Wu. “I basically asked her to strip away those things to go to find that place inside her that is vulnerable. Nobody wants to do that, but she was willing to do that . . . I think that journey was one of the best journeys I’ve ever experienced in any of my work.
”Lewis said, “I can’t even explain to you guys how much I wanted this role . . . I just kept thinking to myself, I can’t just walk away . . . I can’t not be a part of this. So I got really lucky that Alice decided to choose me as Ellie because it is quite literally one of the best things that has ever happened to me in my whole life,” Lewis said.
The film starts with an animated retelling of Plato’s Symposium—yes, that bit about love and soulmates. “I certainly was weaned on this idea that you want to find your other half and then your life is going to be complete. In a way, it’s that journey that the film goes on and sort of subverts,” said Wu.
That’s only half the explanation for the title. The other half? The idiom “the half of it,” as in, “You don’t know the half of it.” “In this film, every single character has a secret of some sort and all of them are hiding some piece of themselves,” said Wu.
“The Half of It,” which is beautifully written and perfectly cast, also stars Daniel Diemer as Paul and Alexxis Lemire as Aster. “Ellie was supposed to be the nerd and Paul is the jock and Aster is the pretty girl but all these characters end up being completely opposite of what you think they’re going to be with all the different layers that Alice added to them,” said Lewis.
Part of the joy of watching the film is the slow peeling away of those layers. Another is enjoying how Wu intelligently used philosophy, literature, art and music to enrich the story.
Lewis said, “Alice actually made us playlists, tailoring them so specifically to each character . . . That playlist was kind of the go-to every single time I wanted to tap into Ellie. There’s a specific song called “Heartbeats” by Jose Gonzalez, which Alice chose kind of as Ellie’s thinking song . . . I found myself visiting that a lot.”
Wu said, “I write to music a lot, I pretty much honestly listen to music any moment I could socially acceptably be doing so . . . I make playlists that are the mood of what is happening . . . Especially because this is a movie of teenagers. All I did as a teen was lie on the floor of my room listen to my songs over and over and over and over.”
“The Half of It” is a queer coming-of-age story, one where the progtanist quietly navigates the complexities of her identity. “Ellie is not somebody who wants to feel her emotions . . . humans for the most part don’t do anything emotionally hard unless we had to. I think she’s just like, ‘I’m getting along, this is what I’m doing, I have to take care of my dad, life is fine.’ I think that kind of mimics my own experience of life,” Wu said.
“I’m an Asian lesbian, but I don’t wake up in the morning and think ‘Ugh, another day to face racism’ or ‘ugh, another day to face homophobia.’ I get up, I go, oh, ‘Where do I have to be? What am I doing?’ just like everybody else. I just want to humanize these characters that so often are only narratives if we appear in a film. I’m very aware that other people have beautiful stories about the queer struggle and I think that’s important. I just happen to do it from a different angle.”
The film has resonated with people all over the world. In the Philippines, it’s steadily been on Netflix’s most-watched list, hitting the No. 2 spot at one point.
Wu said, “What’s weird to me with both my films is that anything that would be so specific and personal would somehow reach so many different kinds of people. It makes me feel a little less lonely . . . It kind of proves true a theory I secretly have that we’re all maybe more similar but more different.”
In the beginning of the film, Ellie Chu says, “In case you haven’t guessed, this isn’t a love story. Or not one where anyone gets what they want.
”But from “The Half of It,” we did get what we want—a moving and memorable film about friendship, family, identity and the different ways to love.