Over the last few years there’s been a greater focus on Asian actors and filmmakers. From films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Yesterday, and The Farewell, the film industry has seemed to become more aware of Asian representation and its potential benefits. With the historic Oscar win of Parasite this year, winning not only best foreign feature but also best picture and best director for Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, it would seem that, while Asian actors and directors are still underrepresented in Hollywood, there is a general trend towards increased representation. Netflix is continuing this trend with its release of the coming of age drama The Half of It, written and directed by Taiwanese-American filmmaker Alice Wu.
The film stars Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu and revolves around Ellie’s efforts to help football player Paul Munsky form a relationship with popular girl Aster Flores via text, texts which Aster thinks are from Paul, but in reality are from Ellie. From the beginning of the film Wu’s skill as a director shines through and helps elevate The Half of It above standard fare coming of age movies. The small town in which these characters live, Squahamish, is brought to life through quality camerawork and lighting, giving the town a grayish dreary look to it. There are multiple points in this story where characters remark about their desire to leave Squahamish, and it’s all the more believable because of Wu’s quality direction. Unfortunately, the score doesn’t quite match the quality of the visuals and comes across as mostly generic and uninspired.
One large problem comes at the beginning of the film, however, and it has to do with how the plot is structured. Ellie’s character is well-written from the get-go: her father is a brilliant engineer with a PhD who’s been passed up on promotions over and over solely due to the fact that his English isn’t great, her mother died early on, and she has no friends at school and hardly interacts with her fellow students, with the exception of writing their papers for them in exchange for money. All these things make us like Ellie and sympathize with her, and it doesn’t hurt that Leah Lewis manages to give a solid, believable performance in the role.
The problem is that the earlier portions of the film are less about Ellie’s struggles and more about the struggles of Paul Munsky, the likeable but dim-witted football player who hires Ellie to help him win over the affections of Aster Flores. This plot point, while essentially the focus of the entire film, ends up focusing too much on Paul, and results in Ellie herself not having much to do, or any sort of conflict specific to her. However, without spoiling the movie, the plot takes a turn halfway through that puts the focus back on Ellie in ways that not only make us care greatly for her as a character, but also in ways that subvert the usual format of typical teenage coming of age stories.