Protagonist Ellie Chu is right. The Half of It is not a love story. It’s a movie built out of loving glances and hopeless yearning from afar. It doesn’t tell a happy romance, or a feminist one, and yet it’s the movie that I, a queer Chinese American woman who’s also a shy, introverted nerd, needed when I was in high school.
Alice Wu, the director of the groundbreaking Saving Face, again thwarts stereotypes and expectations in a film about love letters that also serves as a love letter to Chinese American culture. Ellie may be a talented nerd, but she is far from a model minority. Instead, her story reveals the struggles and discrimination too many Asian Americans experience. Society may pretend that Asian Americans don’t face any race or class issues, but Wu is unafraid of bringing these problems into the limelight and of telling the stories of immigrants and their first- generation children. Ellie’s family immigrated to tiny, rural Squahamish, Washington when Ellie was five in the hopes that her father could find an engineering job worthy of his PhD. Unfortunately, in a twist of fate that so many first-generation children understand all too well, he was judged on his inability to speak perfect English rather than on his ability to perform a job. After Ellie’s mother passed away when she was thirteen, her father was overrun by grief and Ellie shouldered the burden of the family business of running the train station.
The Chus are not a rich family, either. Although Ellie is brilliant and academically gifted, her talents are a breath of fresh air and lie in English and writing rather than in the math and sciences, and she runs a small but successful business of writing essays for her high school classmates. As the only Chinese American in the school, she is shunned and teased by her white counterparts, and the only student who shows any kindness towards Ellie is Aster Flores, the resident pretty girl and the only other person of color. Aster, however, is not just a sympathetic classmate; when Ellie stares at her longingly during choir practice, it becomes painfully obvious Aster is the object of Ellie’s hopeless affections.
But Ellie, already relentlessly called “chug-a-chug-a choo choo” by her classmates, despite being smart enough to save all their GPAs, is afraid of amplifying her differences. Tacking on queer to her identity of an ostracized race, class, and social status would be too much for this awkward teenager who’s just trying to help her grieving father. She’s already come to terms with the fact that her life won’t change, and so she continues to yearn from a safe distance until Paul Munsky, a sweet jock who lacks Ellie’s ability to shape words into wishes, unwittingly offers Ellie a way to talk to Aster from afar. He’ll pay Ellie to write a love letter, but the catch is that she must pose as Paul.
For both Paul and Ellie, Aster is a romantic ideal, every bit as blurry and impossible to grasp as she is presented to us on the film’s official poster—out of focus, her face barely discernable. Ellie, desperate for cash to pay the electrical bill that her dad can’t afford, finally agrees to one love letter. That one love letter quickly becomes two, then three, and then full-blown text conversations, all with Ellie acting as Paul’s mouthpiece.
This is a romantic comedy, however, and some tropes must be fulfilled. The secret love triangle, or whatever you call a shape of unreciprocated and secret love between three people, falls apart when Paul realizes why Ellie has been so invested in the love letters. But upon learning that Ellie is queer, he too shatters stereotypes: those of the dumb jock. Having already protected Ellie from bullying, he shows no judgment whatsoever, and his reaction is both sweet and hilarious. He performs a Google search to try to help and understand her and mistakenly leaves the search results up on his family computer screen. Paul then literally and metaphorically stands up to help Ellie protest Aster’s engagement to a boyfriend whom she doesn’t even love, getting to his feet during church and helping Ellie reveal that she was the true mastermind behind the contrived love letter affair.
Yes, the romance between Ellie and Aster is far from feminist. Ellie cruelly strung Aster along, making her believe she was falling for Paul even when Ellie witnessed Aster question what love and belief are in Aster’s favorite secret place, the hot springs surrounded by what may or may not be deciduous trees. But as a terrified, queer teenager of color in a white, heteronormative society, Ellie had no other choice. Speaking through Paul was the closest she thought she could get to Aster, and the beauty of the film is that Ellie is never judged for her queerness. The Half of It also opens up the possibility that Aster, too, could be queer, thus showing us that yearning can open up a world, and a future, of possibilities.
Ellie never comes out to her father, but in a town as small as Squahamish, it’s possible that word spreads quickly. But it’s equally possible that he’ll remain sheltered in his apartment and in the little train station booth, and that Ellie will be able to come out on her own terms, perhaps in a scene reminiscent of her father making dumplings in support of sending her off to college. After all, immigrant parents and their first-generation children show their love through actions, not words. Maybe one day, I’ll do the same thing.
The film may not have a happy ending, but it does yield one full of hope. Ellie, about to walk away from Aster forever, takes one final chance because she has nothing left to lose. She dumps her bike on the ground, abandoning her preferred method of transportation and safety net, marches toward Aster on her own two feet, and kisses her. She leaves a smiling Aster with the promise that she’ll see her in a few years, and leaves us with the hope that Ellie and Aster will one day find their way back to each other and discover whether or not those trees are deciduous.
Sarena Tien is a PhD student in French Literature at Cornell University. Her poetry and prose has appeared in online publications such as Transitions Abroad, The Feminist Wire, Bustle, On She Goes, and Argot.