Let it be known that The Half of It was marketed to me with incredible perseverance. From its repeated reposts on Asian/queer groups on Facebook to Netflix auto-playing the trailer every day for a month, I very much understood the point: this is for people (consumers) like you. You are the targeted audience.
What a strange sentiment. At the risk of preaching to the choir, mainstream Western media does not cater to people like me. We’re usually supposed to relate to the sidekicks, however uncomfortable: we started off trying to root for Cho Chang only to grow up and feel betrayed by a caricature. Then Hollywood graciously squeezed out a bit of space for Sandra Oh, Mindy Kaling, Ken Jeong; the wheels began to turn, slouching towards a moment when Netflix makes a teenage lesbian rom-com with a lead named Ellie Chu.
That origin story is precisely the paradox that runs through the entirety of The Half of It. In checking off that elusive representation box of East Asian queerness for Netflix, it takes on an enormous cultural burden, one it stumbles to embrace. Ellie’s story is a quintessentially Chinese-American one, from shouldering adult responsibilities to teaching parents English to being the “only Asian” in school. These details were portrayed with admirable authenticity, and though lead actress Leah Lewis’s Mandarin pronunciation could be less robotic, Ellie’s dynamic with her father is recognizable for any Asian immigrant or first-generation child.
This authenticity sharply contrasts the film’s portrayal of love: from drawn-out close-up shots of Aster Flores’ perfectly angular Caucasian face to that climactic, hazy scene in the forest pond, the main romantic plot in The Half of It is more fantasy than realism. And just as well: after all, this is a teenager’s first crush, a necessarily abstract, emotional, and hormone-fueled experience.
Ellie’s upbringing in what appears to be an almost entirely white area of rural Pacific Northwest must have also influenced what she finds attractive. Looking at the world through her eyes, the viewer cannot help but feel that female beauty is entangled in white features. It is evident that in addition to her ostensible heterosexuality, Aster’s unattainability is at least partly rooted in her whiteness, Christianity, and inherent belonging in Squahamish; by contrast, nowhere in the film is Ellie portrayed as desirable. Brilliant, sensitive, responsible, all the elements of an exemplary immigrant daughter and faithful friend, yes; however, in attempting to both de-sexualize Ellie and portray her lesbianism, The Half of It collides with an impossible conundrum.
In a sense, the film is clearly aware of this paradox but fails to resolve it with much satisfaction. That aforementioned forest scene becomes a symbolic one: while Aster strips down to only a bra and underwear in the water, Ellie stays fully clothed even though she is the one with sexual interest. Hollywood, in general, frantically pivots between desexualizing East Asian women and fetishizing “Oriental” beauty. In The Half of It’s case, Ellie’s desexualization is explained away as part of director Alice Wu’s immigrant realism, inadvertently leaving little room for queerness. The film’s ending provides much-needed exhilaration to an otherwise dreamily slow-paced narrative dotted with references to literature and French philosophy, and the viewer is finally given an opportunity to enthusiastically cheer Ellie on as she apparently embraces herself and exposes Aster’s hypocrisy.
However, it soon becomes clear that Ellie is ultimately given the same treatment as Amy from Booksmart. Lesbian teen characters are always tortured and perfect, always headed for bright futures away from home in that final graduation scene, but are rarely ever allowed some promise of real romance. Directors seem more willing to let their queerness be theoretical than embodied, not realizing that teenage female viewers of the non-heterosexual variety also deserve romantic storylines and happy endings.
According to Ellie, The Half of It is “not a love story.” Then what is it? As Ellie laughs and sobs on the train to her ivory tower in Iowa, it seems like the answer is more likely to be generic friendship and identity than wrestling with the thorny challenges of queer representation. The Half of It was sold as a project of groundbreaking representation and did supply cinematographically gorgeous authenticity and honesty, but ultimately promised more than it delivered.