The Netflix movie ‘The Half of It’ is a delectably sweet story on growing pains that deals with questions of identity and sexual awakening as dealt with by the central character, a Chinese immigrant girl in the USA. It is set in one of those small, beautiful little towns which gives off the vibes of a certain kind of paradise but one which most of its inhabitants find cloistering and are desperate to get out of. This is a film which, while it never gets too complicated and we know things won’t turn out too bad, manages to infuse warmth and affection in our hearts.
Leah Lewis plays Ellie Chu, a painfully shy Chinese-American high school student who lives at a train station where her father is the signalman. Father and daughter had come to the land of opportunities in the wake of her mother’s passing, in the hope of finding the American dream. He is, or was, an engineer. The idea was to start small in the fictional small town of Squahamish, and then perhaps move onto bigger things. But, as does happen in life often, the small start becomes a sort of permanent stopping point, and before they know it, they are careworn fixtures of the place. Their nightly dinner ritual involves them eating in front of a television to some classics, with Ellie gently chiding her father for not trying to learn the language more and with him retorting that he watches the movies for the same purpose. She maybe the only Chinese kid in the town, and she has to face her share of casual racism from time to time. But she is a straight A’s student and has made a bit of a lucrative side business writing people’s assignments and essays for cash. Into this quiet life drops in confusion in the form of Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) and Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Aster is a school beauty, the girlfriend and probable fiancé of the narcissistically shallow and rich Trig, but who appears quite uncomfortable in the ‘popular’ clan she finds herself in. She loves to read and has a rich interest in literature which she shares with Ellie (unbeknownst to either of them initially). Paul is an adorably clumsy jock who is a ‘star’ on the college’s terrible football team and who has a bit of a problem expressing himself in fancy language. Unfortunately for him, he wants to express himself in fancy language to Aster, the object of his intense attraction. To woo her the old-fashioned way, he employs Ellen to write deep letters to Aster in his stead and hopefully set them up for a date. Ellen is hesitant and not just because of the questionable method of flirtation employed. She starts to realise her own feelings for Aster may go beyond a simple desire for friendship, as she gets attracted to something much more substantial within her than what others (including Paul) can see. But money’s tight and Paul is a bit persistent, so Ellie starts writing to Aster. Eventually, Paul manages to wrangle a date with the reticent Aster, but it doesn’t take long for things to get awkward with his way with words (or lack of them) and Aster’s eagerness to continue the conversations they were having with the written word in verbal mode. But, as already stated, Paul is persistent in a harmless way and he even starts reading Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’, a book which Aster loves. Meanwhile, he also makes inroads into Ellie’s personal space and forms a touching bond with her father, who can barely communicate with him. Slowly, both Paul and Ellie start understanding that the other has qualities beyond the immediate use for which they came together for and start to spend more time together. In the midst of it all, Aster too realises something maybe off about Paul and also starts noticing the reticent Ellie much more than she used to.
It’s a warm embrace of a little film; the kind of rom-com which when done well provides a haven to snuggle into on a night when you want to get out of the drudgery of a tough day. The characters are mostly relatable, warm and funny and even if they do something which is not exactly within the bounds of acceptable behavior, we know that they would come back to their senses soon enough and make amends. Even the ‘antagonists’, in this case a bunch of dumb fellow students of Ellen who keep needling her as she makes her way painstakingly by cycle up the inclines of their area, are not really bad per se. Just a group of teenagers who don’t know better and who will come around soon enough. The primary, central relationship between Paul and Ellie is beautifully worked into the narrative as we see them going from collaborators to people who genuinely care about each other and what the other wants. Ellen’s father is also a poignant and bittersweet character, a man who realizes that the best days of his life maybe past but who will keep trying that little bit for the daughter he loves. The sequences between him and Paul are also lovely to watch showing the oft-cliched, but well-done in this case, portrait of two individuals from different spheres of life who don’t even share a common language connecting over a common love. Also, it’s nice to see a real character playing the lead, one who seems completely believable for the milieu and story that is being told. While I realize this is the age when representation of different minorities in cinema and television is being discussed widely, I am happy to see a film where it is not a token representation to please the masses, but a genuinely good choice for the film. And the locations are picture postcard beautiful, worth a watch just for themselves but irresistible when they are conjoined with a delicious story. Netflix appears to be good at finding these places. This one has echoes of the beautiful vistas they found for another affectionately portrayed coming of age story of theirs, the series Sex Education.
Unless you’re a hardened cynic, I would suggest to give this film a go. And even if you are one, you may just find yourself appreciating this little gem.