Representation, Sexuality, and Love in The Half of It

Jul 2020

This review will cover meaningful aspects of The Half of It I did not see explored elsewhere. My purpose in writing this is to fill the gaps I observed in broader online discussion, so I won’t be broaching topics I feel have already been covered, excepting a brief synopsis. This review includes spoilers. I’ve hidden offending sections behind spoiler tags. If you’re interested in reading a review with more plot details, I recommend this one, or better yet, go watch the film yourself. I highly recommend it.

The Half of It is a fresh iteration on the formula pioneered by Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. The film opens with a brief animation making reference to the popular understanding of love as “finding your other half,” represented by a flower on the earth and a star in the sky – forever reaching for one another, but never to meet. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is our Cyrano, a young woman with a gift for words who pines after the gorgeous Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie is approached by a fellow student, Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), who shares Ellie’s admiration for Aster. Paul can’t pen a love letter to save his life, but he’s got a plan: Ellie writes the letters, and Paul courts Aster over dinner. Shenanigans ensue.

Ellie is a stellar counterstereotypic example of Asians in popular media. Contrary to the expectations constructed by power’s arbitrary narrative, she has a natural flair for literature and art, be it creative or interpretative work. Ellie doesn’t help her classmates cheat on their math tests; instead, she writes their essays. Even Ellie’s English teacher, well aware of the cheating dynamic in the classroom, notes her ingenuity: “Six different takes on Plato. [That’s] impressive.” The characterization subtly touches on another stereotype Ellie counters: that Asians are boring, robotic, and devoid of feeling. Ellie is far from mundane – she spars with a clever, biting wit; she references a breadth of works in her letters to Aster; and she can discuss the finer aspects of painted artwork. She even does a bit of painting herself, as we observe when Aster and her take turns creating wall art. That this is even worth addressing is more reflective of flawed media portrayals1 than it is of anything specific to Wu’s writing and direction, but it is refreshing to see the whole range of human experience reflected in a character who, in another film, would have been defined primarily by her race and gender as opposed to her abilities and interests.

Wu is conscious of another stereotype – the oversexualization of Asian women. For the majority of the film, Ellie isn’t attractive, nor is she trying to be. Her hair is tied back, her demeanor severe; she doesn’t smile for anyone, nor does she share much about her personal life. She’s “closed” where the stereotypical Asian woman portrayed in media is “open,” especially sexually. On the few occasions this pattern is interrupted, Wu makes sure to emphasize the paramount importance of Ellie’s autonomy. The care with which Wu navigates the issue is no clearer than in the final scene between Ellie and Aster, where Ellie acknowledges and professes her romantic desire without fear of rejection. This deviation from the norm goes beyond the kiss the two women share – there’s also a change in Ellie’s presentation, in particular the clothes she is wearing. By engaging in this subtle shift only when Ellie is agentic, Wu avoids presenting her as a sexual object who exists for the pleasure of others. It is through Ellie’s acts of self-determination that she becomes sexual, rather than being sexualized. Even then, the change is almost imperceptible, driving home the point that the film’s central theme is not love for another, but self-love. In line with that message, this is one of the few scenes in the film in which Ellie smiles, not for anyone else, but because she is happy.

Let’s bring the star-flower dynamic I mentioned earlier back to the foreground, and take explicit note of the parallels between this and the name of Ellie’s love interest, Aster Flores. The film doesn’t end with Ellie and Aster together, as many viewers may have hoped, though the door is left open for future romantic engagements. Instead, Ellie makes peace with herself, leaving behind the flawed idea that love is finding your other half. Her brief interaction with Aster before heading off to Grinnell, in which she admits what she wants and who she is, mirrors the course of her personal growth, in which she acknowledges the limitations of “star-flower” thought, and moves beyond it, a more complete person than she was before. Ellie finds radical self-acceptance to be far more fulfilling than chasing after other halves. It’s this that Wu wants to leave her viewers with, to encourage them to move beyond simplistic understandings of love and approach matters with a healthy perspective that affords both ourselves and our partners more freedom to be who we want to be, instead of being bound to one another.

1see how this HuffPost article presents an interesting discussion of the portrayals of Asian sex workers while still obscuring the more fundamental criticism: maybe there should be more Asian women in roles outside of sex work