The Half Of It | 2020 Tribeca Film Festival
By: Hooman Razavi
A keen film buff may not expect excerpts from Plato, Oscar Wilde and Sartre on the meaning of Love in a teen comedy romance; but Alice Wu’s second feature “The Half of it” weaved heavier subtexts and themes in the story of a love triangle. In the same vein, the characters may seem stereotypical as Ellie (Asian nerd), Paul (Small town cool guy) and more polished and sophisticated home girl (Asther); however, as much as these contrasts may be contested and unrealistic, it drives the story and crescendo the drama well.
If one wants to take the film and distill it in a few words and key scenes- it will be the obscure object of the desire and love- reminiscent of Luis Bunuel classic of the same title. Ellie writes the best philosophy essays on love, but she can’t express her feelings to Asther easily. Paul seemingly loves Asther unrequitedly, but she needs Ellie to write her the love letters. Asther affinity to Ellie is evident but she dates Paul and she gets so close to marry another cool guy from the school, almost ignoring her libidinal instincts. In both the dating and pond scenes, the difficulties and intricacies of expressing one’s desires are well narrated; the camera in both scenes and many others knows its limits, framing and focus on the characters to show emotional distance and complexity of desiring. Interestingly in some other scenes, these tensions are downplayed. In both the Ping-Pong scene in which Ellie and Paul warm up to each other and the scenes in the house in which Paul joins Ellie and her dad to watch classic films, the tensions and erotic urges seems under control. In brief, ironically, by the end of the film, as Paul runs to catch Ellie in vain, the viewer is left and possibly more perplexed on how one can desire and love? Is this turbulence unique to teenage years and the story or can be it extended to the lives of others regardless of their racial background and maturity level; and can there be a peace before the storm or love always remains messy?
Narratively, the film opening scenes gives the viewer a full picture of all characters and setting. This way, Ellies’ character and who and where she interacts is captured and shown masterfully. Early on, her house and the road she takes to get to school and back home take center stage. It is in the house, that father-daughter relationship is depicted unlike Alice Wu’s first feature Saving Face that focused on mother-daughter issues in a similar context of homoerotic ambiguity. The road also could be a metaphor for the arduous journey that characters and audience must take to understand facets of loving and knowing what and why we love. The music plays its part to construct the romantic atmosphere in multiple scenes, but it does not overplay its role. The shots, camera movements and editing are all conducive to the mode of storytelling which is linear with rather a happy ending but not as clear-cut interpretatively. Lastly, superb acting-especially characters’ facial expression and suited body language, make the viewer to sympathize with protagonists’ state of mind and choices of actions; even though some may object to some internal monologues and dialogues to be too revealing.
Alice Wu has wonderfully taken a teen comedy-drama and dosed it with complex subtexts and embedded questions. The one aspect that is worth mentioning is the constant switch between the male gaze to the female gaze and reverse, which in a sense is not new to cinema but well developed in the context of this story, with added layer of racial complexity. Some viewers may problematize this aspect as Ellie may not be as attractive as Asther as implied in the film, but the way she gets attraction works at a different level. The beauty of mind and body as platonic and sensual love conceptions could explain the issue here. In a sense one can read the male body (Paul), female body (Asther) and female mind (Ellie) to make up the real backbone of the love triangle combining both the platonic and erotic aspects. This may seem counterintuitive both to the title of the film suggesting the utopia of two and early platonic and mythic reference of four, but the films plot trajectory and clues may further validate this interpretation.
In sum, this deceptively simple film, distributed and available on Netflix, leaves its own unique mental mark/image on each of us. It may conjure up Aristophanes’ myth and how we may find the other half ourselves; alternatively, it may make us to desire a simple date night with good wine, kiss and laugh and nothing too abstract and outwardly. No one can be sure as neither Ellie, nor Paul and Asther found the secret at the end.