A queer retelling of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Netflix’s The Half of It highlights the messy reality of love at a time when we might need it most.
An ex-boyfriend used to tell me that the Ancient Greeks had eight different ways of saying “love”. Eight different expressions to pinpoint one’s affections, longing, and tenderness. Eight ways of deciphering feelings for the people who make you mad. By contrast, one word, “love”, feels so limited. It now seems silly, irresponsible, to make that one single word do so much. Too much attention and expectation placed on a word with which we’re told we must strive for, drive to airports for, blindly dive headfirst into every tired cliche for.
Lucky for us, Netflix’s new teen-film, The Half of It (directed by Alice Wu) isn’t your typical cliche. It also isn’t a love story, as the opening narration is quick to warn. “People spend far too much time looking for someone to complete them” asserts our protagonist, Ellie Chu.
“The good thing about being different in a town like this, is that no one expects you to be like them. I’m 17. I live in Squahamish with my dad. I run a business writing essays for people. I guess I just never thought I’d need anyone else.”
And yet the narrative must pass along. Like many in the genre ( 10 Things I Hate About You; Love, Simon; She’s the Man etc.), the film’s plot hinges on one teen begrudgingly helping another with some scheme or trickery followed by a series of sad, wild, sexy consequences.
In order to pay off her father’s overdue electricity bill, Ellie agrees to help Paul – a kind yet simple footballer – pen a love-letter campaign to his crush, the local pastor’s daughter, Aster (yes, really). The gorgeous twist? Ellie’s crafty way with words isn’t solely an income stream. They’re authentic. Ellie is in love with Aster.
The Half of It is a queer love story that successfully manages to queer the age-old love story. In place of spaghetti-entwined romance we’re fed a taco sausage; an unlikely union between a queer woman and a straight man who manage to fumble into friendship. It’s a queer film that spotlights and prioritises friendship against a society that continues to demand romantic love as most central to life’s key success. It flips cupid’s rulebook on its head without compromising on heart.
Importantly, it places a young queer woman of colour at its helm.
Years ago I wrote on the lack of lesbian and queer women’s visibility in mainstream film. Of the stories that do get told, most tend to be biopics, period-dramas (Battle of the Sexes, The Favourite, Carol) or present the protagonist’s sexuality as continually in flux and flimsy (Imagine Me & You, A Room in Rome, The Kids Are All Right). It’s rare for films to champion the queer young woman who unwaveringly just is, and while recent examples (Booksmart, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) have found solid footing, The Half of It addresses the erasure of young queer women of colour from these mainstream vehicles.
But in place of either using sexuality as a focal narrative ploy or a playful character device, The Half of It jolts forward by depicting how different forms of love intersect with Ellie and her queerness.
Conversations around religious faith, familial duty and the empowering force of friendship drive the story to its inevitable climax. Ellie is made to make a number of choices based on the different embodiments of love that surround her. The forbidden love with the pastor’s daughter. The devotion to her dad, a well-educated man from China who feels the impact of American xenophobia, still affected by the loss of his wife. The newfound care for a surprising companion who instils unmatched confidence.
But “love is messy,” Ellie reminds. Navigating the fragile lines between friendship and romance, devotion and duty, and comfort and complacency is difficult, as the characters reveal. Especially when all we have is that one binding word.
Ultimately it’s Ellie’s relationship with herself that’s given centre stage by the film’s ending. And deservingly so. Where once she made a business out of writing everyone else’s stories, she now begins to write her own. Where before she worked at the train station ushering others on their journeys, she finds herself finally a passenger.
For Ellie it seems that liberation was always possible – the train station was always at her doorstep – but in many ways, she was her own biggest hurdle. In understanding the potential for not just love, but it’s messy reciprocity (the big, bold strokes) could Ellie finally feel whole.
The Half of It reminds us that love is difficult to grasp and define (it’s sure as hell difficult to write about). At a time when our collective priorities are being reshaped and reconstituted as physical distancing challenges the nature of our relationships, the film provides a helpful/hopeful reflection of the types of love we look to value. It says that in the constant trying, ongoing reaching, and inevitable failing, we invariably end up learning the most about ourselves. A single word still doesn’t seem fair, but it’s what makes sorting through the mess all the more exciting.
You can watch The Half Of It on Netflix right now.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.