Girl, you don’t know the Half of It


As Ellie Chu herself says, “This is not a love story … or not one where anyone gets what they want.” This is a story about yearning, trust, and learning to be true to oneself, because although you can fake your way to good grades by cheating, you cannot fake your way into a romance. Not one that lasts, anyway. Love can only be built on the truth.


Director Alice Wu’s movie “The Half of It” stars three walking archetypes and manages to invert them. Paul, the jock, Ellie, the nerd and Aster, the pretty face. Each knows each other for a few moments, and moves on with their lives changed. 


We first meet Ellie, the smart writer profiting through a cheating scheme, writing essays for her peers. She charges $10 for 1-3 pages and $20 for 4-10 pages. She writes about love in Plato’s eyes. She watches her father’s movies showing love in Wim Wenders’ camera lens. She speaks about love using another’s words. 


We meet Aster in Ellie’s eyes. Ellie is quite clearly head-over-heels for Aster, despite neither of them speaking. In fact, when we first see Aster, we don’t hear her speak her own words. We hear her sing a song another has written. Aster, like Ellie, uses other’s words, but because she is being conducted to do so. Because she feels expected to.


We meet Paul last, and we don’t even hear him. We watch him listen to Aster’s singing. Paul doesn’t speak his own truths; he listens to what he thinks are other’s truths. Paul doesn’t speak. He’s a jock. His words are through his actions.


The Half of It begins with history’s words, but it is not about them. The Half of It is not about Plato’s words on soulmates. It is not about what Wim Wenders has to say about longing. It is not about any words someone had already immortalized in ink and film.


It is about Ellie’s words. And Paul’s. And Aster’s. And why they matter.


Ellie enters the film as a writer who can only repeat what past poets have already said. Aster enters as a pretty face who speaks and acts as others expect her to. Paul enters as a boy who isn’t good at words but has heard how others have described love. 


None of them have any words to call their own. Even when Ellie starts writing to Aster through Paul, she plagiarizes the letters.


Ellie and Aster understand each other’s struggles. Both have their own words resting on the tips of their tongues, waiting to be spoken. But they’re both scared. They’re scared of changing because of the comfort found in what’s known. They’re scared of messing up and losing what they originally had. They’re scared of the bold strokes that can make or break their lives.


And that’s where the graffiti comes in. 


Aster is entranced by the graffiti wall that “Paul” leads her to. She feels herself opening up and expressing her true self through art by creating the bold strokes that “he” challenges her to create, empowered with a form of expression that has no consequences. Similarly, Ellie also feels herself opening up, but stays behind the screen, allowing Aster to continue thinking she’s Paul. It’s a sense of anonymous fulfillment.


Eventually, Ellie and Aster do end up hanging out, face-to-face. Aster takes Ellie to a hot spring in the forest. She tells her about the questions she has about her future with Trig, her indecisiveness about religion, and her confusion about Paul. Aster is unsure about a lot of things in her life. Ellie doesn’t speak much, and instead listens intently to everything Aster says to her. 


While they lay in the hot spring, Ellie says, “Gravity is matter’s response to loneliness.” When Aster asks her who said it, Ellie tells her she doesn’t know. Aster replies with, “Then you said it.” 


In a way, this simple exchange helps Ellie find her words in this scene, because though she always falls back on others’ words, Aster shows her that she can have her own words — that it is okay to be herself.


But despite it all, she can’t. Ellie is ready to speak her own words, but she still writes to Aster behind Paul’s name. Her truths are ready to be told, but she turns to her lies, nevertheless. 


Ellie and Aster are not in love. They could be. They are constantly teetering on the edge of something more, but they are still not ready. The bold strokes are the hardest ones for them to make. Ellie cannot learn love from Aster alone, showcasing how The Half of It is not a cliche rom-com. Coming to terms with who you are, in terms of sexuality, is complicated enough. 


She needs Paul. Paul, the boy who thinks he loves Aster without ever speaking to her. Paul, the boy who forms a relationship with her built on Ellie’s letters. Paul, who realizes he cares for Ellie more than he ever did Aster. Paul, who sees that Ellie could only feel that way for Aster.


Paul sees love as something that drives you crazy. He sees it as something that lowers your inhibitions to the point of stupidity. He sees it as something he tried to have with Aster, but really had with Ellie. 


Paul and Ellie’s dad’s conversation on love is probably the most brutally honest part of this movie.


In a conversation he has with Paul during one of the most conflicting parts of the movie, he asks, “Have you ever loved someone so much … you don’t want anything about her to change?” 


Ellie’s dad is more often taken care of by Ellie than he takes care of her. But although he does little in terms of parenting, he tries to understand her, and by asking Paul this question, he tries to make sense of what is going on with his daughter, and what Paul has to do with it. He wants her to be happy, but he just doesn’t know how to do it. 


Paul loves Ellie. Not romantically. Platonically. He doesn’t really see the difference. Ellie can’t help Paul get his words, necessarily, but he speaks with his actions, instead. 


Ellie finds her words through the girl she could love and the boy who loves her. And then they go their separate ways, because they are not parts of a whole. They are their own people who found each other and themselves for a few moments. And then they moved on. 


This is not your run-of-the-mill rom-com. There is no “happy” ending where the happy couple gets together and lives happily ever after. But this is an ending wherein all the characters are at peace with each other, and more importantly, themselves. This is an ending that isn’t an ending at all. In fact, it’s a beginning. It’s the beginning of a new adventure, for everyone. 

The Half of It is not a love story. It is a story about love.