2020, at least when it comes to high school, coming of age dramas seems to be the year of identity and loneliness. First there was Disney’s Stargirl, a drama about the difficulties in knowing yourself at such a young age and the courage that it takes just to be you. Director Alice Wu, in her first film in 15 years, continues the trend but uses the same themes and ideas to tell a story of the crippling power of isolation, be it by choice or unintentional and the importance of having that one person who makes you feel anything but alone, no matter who they are.
Wu’s story is set in the peaceful, unremarkable town of Squahamish, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest as teenager Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) tries to make her way through high school while making a little bit of cash on the side from an essay writing business for some of the intellectually challenged kids in her class while caring for her grieving father. When Paul (Daniel Diemer) comes to her with a proposition, write a love letter to popular girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), she reluctantly agrees despite her own suppressed feelings for Aster slowly coming to the fore.
Starting with an animation about our perfect halves and what they bring to us or push us towards, The Half of It signposts its twist and turns, character development and overall point right from the start. While that might seem like the first portent of things to come, it also displays right off the bat a visual flair that carries through the whole film. From the carefully framed shots of distanced characters kept away from each other for one reason or another, to how a town of seeming insignificance can still look beautiful, the kind of place that is the right kind of quaint for some people but too small for others.
Wu plays with the notion of newfound friendship while never ignoring the sickly nature of the con they are pulling. Ellie and Paul make for a perfect, oxymoronical double act but Wu’s script holds them to account while still feeling forgiving. While these characters are full of youthful exuberance, in part because of Lewis’ feigned bravado and Diemer’s accentuated stupidity, they are also constantly grappling with their own secrets and fears and thanks to Wu’s visual authenticity to small-town living, their lives seem much more understandable and tangible, enough to make connecting with their mistakes and successes that much easier.
The problematic third wheel is Aster, a decent enough emotional foil for Ellie but when it comes to her connection to Paul, The Half of It falls flat. Not only does she seem like a collection of musings, the idea of a grown-up teenager, too perfect to really exist but she lacks the emotional depth to really fit in, something that proves ironic for a character who worries about how she fits into a small town she too seems destined to leave behind but can’t. Although Lemire smooths over the cracks in luminous fashion, bringing charisma to a character lacking in the same kind of time and attention afforded Ellie and Paul, Aster feels like wallpaper, something that adds to a scene here and there but never really takes command of in the way she should.
While the film slots itself into a well used and expected subgenre and plays it for all its worth, it is the personal touches, the central friendship and a great soundtrack that really bring the heart out of The Half of It. Wu’s story is more than just an unconventional tale of better halves but one of combatting ones own self-imposed seclusion through understanding and simple friendships. Personally, I think that is something quite necessary at this moment in time.