“The Half of It” and Hollywood’s Timid Steps Towards Diversity
Our universal desire for the perfect soulmate introduced in Plato’s Symposium has become the thesis for almost every Hollywood manufactured blockbuster—complete with familiar tropes that have become expectations of American audiences. These tropes have left little room on screen for the experiences of minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ+, and people of every other community that has been deemed commercially unconventional. However, in our modern climate of divisiveness, the cries for diversity and inclusion have intensified. Hollywood has responded by hopping on the representation trend with films such as Call Me By Your Name, If Beale Street Could Talk, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Riding on the success of these releases is a new coming-of-age story by Netflix, The Half of It.
Created by Asian American writer and director Alice Wu, The Half of It introduces audiences to the story of Ellie Chu. An outsider in a small rural town, Ellie is stuck in that familiar longing for her better half. The socially awkward teenager is only seen by her classmates as the girl they pay to write their papers. However, from the opening sequence, Wu makes it clear that Ellie is not your usual teenage romantic comedy underdog. Instead, Ellie is a Chinese immigrant whose object of affection is a girl. The drama ensues when classmate Paul Munsky recruits Ellie to write a love letter to Aster Flores, who, unbeknownst to Paul, happens to be Ellie and Paul’s mutual crush. After a series of character revelations, a soap opera worthy church scene, and an unlikely friendship, the initially guarded Ellie learns that to find love, one must make their own “bold stroke.” However, The Half of It is not as courageous as its hero. Like most recent films, it checks off the box for representation; nonetheless, it fails to truly capture and fully explore the unique experiences of its characters as it simultaneously relies on exhausted stereotypes.
Filmmakers appear to use a perfected recipe to cook up the classic high school love story: a dumb jock, a school dance, a quirky best friend (most likely a person of color (POC)), the boring small town, the Asian genius, the unattractive nerd, the wise English teacher that is uncomfortably invested in their students’ personal lives, the big football game, and the unfriendly popular kids are among the common ingredients. This formula has appeared so many times on screen that it has established a definition of what the life of a teenager should look like.
Despite the diversity of its protagonist, The Half of It does not come without these overused tropes. Paul Munsky serves the part of the dumb jock; indeed, his lack of eloquence leads him to Ellie whose introduction as a type-A Asian is all too familiar. Even more familiar is the popular and conventionally attractive love interest, Aster Flores. First seen glowing in the sunlight of the music room, the adored Aster is painfully perfect. Wu attempts to render her relatability with the revelation that she struggles under “the oppression of fitting in.” Yet, without any further exploration into her experiences, one-dimensional Aster falls flat. Regardless, perhaps the most shallow character is Trig Carson—the predictable hot jerk. Wu does not provide any character arc to make us form an opinion on Trig. We viewers only remember his existence when he pops up to fulfill the role of the occasional antagonist and Aster’s boyfriend.
Furthermore, in addition to these character tropes, Wu drops in several “classic high school scenarios” that seem unnecessary to the story. In the school talent show, Ellie performs an original song in front of her classmates. However, this act does not engender any apparent character growth. Beforehand, Paul helps Ellie pick out the perfect outfit, which gives a nod to the stereotypical awkward girl makeover scene. A football game also occurs; yet, its only significance is that Paul finally scores a touchdown. And throughout the story, the familiar stress of the college application process is continuously referenced. These overworked ideas feel too obvious and out of place in Wu’s writing. They form comfortable buffers that soften the blow of her poignant narrative. The screen time wasted to show Paul’s poor football skills or Trig’s annoying one-liners could have been better used to dive deeper into the dizzying amount of complex topics and issues to which the film merely alludes.
The Half of It does succeed at including diversity not only in the form of Ellie Chu but through the introduction of subjects that are often neglected in Hollywood. The immigrant experience, grief, homophobia, existentialism, and theology are all touched upon during the film’s one hour and forty-four minute running time. However, along with Ellie’s identity, none of these topics are allowed adequate time to be fully addressed. After the credits, I was left wanting to learn more about Ellie and her father’s struggle as Chinese immigrants in the predominantly white town of Squahamish. I wanted to understand Paul’s sudden confession of homophobia and how he comes to overcome it in a few scenes later. I wanted to see Aster’s experience as the pastor’s daughter and how her faith conflicts with her exploration of philosophy. The most frustrating aspect of the film is that Ellie’s queer identity is never explicitly discussed; it is just gradually and silently understood. Consequently, The Half of It finishes as a disappointing waste of a potentially poignant and powerful coming of age story.
My wish for Wu and for other filmmakers of today is to internalize the lesson of courage that Ellie herself learns. The steps Hollywood is taking towards diversity and inclusion are encouraging; yet, they remain timid. Films like The Half of It satisfy audiences with an introduction to unfamiliar territory, but, fearing making people uncomfortable, the films fail to dive deeper. This dilution of one’s identity is the reality for most POC and LGBTQ+ individuals who are taught to blend into a world not created for them. Brave storytellers have the power to change this narrative by giving a voice to those whose voices have yet to be heard. The film industry needs to overcome its fear of highlighting our differences so that we can be reminded of what makes us the same. It only takes one bold stroke.