Alice Wu’s new queer film The Half of It centers a queer Asian coming-of-age narrative.
When Sartre claimed that “hell is other people,” he must have been talking about high school. Once one enters, there’s no exit, the design of hallways seems intended towards maximum exposure to judgmental looks … the comparisons draw themselves.
In her sophomore directorial effort The Half of It, Alice Wu takes on the Great American Genre of the coming-of-age rom-com, using Sartre’s lens to refresh classic storylines with her unique voice as an auteur. This unique voice has given the eldest daughters of immigrants–niche, I know–their new coming-of-age icon in the form of one Ellie Chu (and secured the top prize at the Tribeca Film Festival for Wu).
The only Asian kid in her Washingtonian high school, Ellie stands separate from her peers, having one foot in adulthood and one in adolescence. She takes on the mature responsibilities of supporting her widower father by paying the bills and fulfilling his duties at the local train station while applying to college and trying to get a girl to like her back. Torn between familial duty and a desire to forge her own path, Ellie finds a kindred spirit in the dopey football player Paul Munsky, whose dream is to turn his family’s sausage business into something great.
The Half of It explores themes previously touched upon in Wu’s 2004 debut Saving Face (i.e. immigrant narratives of tradition vs. American individuality, the independence afforded by an ability to communicate) and translates these themes onto Ellie’s American counterparts, arguing that the specific can be universal.
In a loose adaptation of the play Cyrano de Bergerac, Ellie and Paul’s unlikely friendship begins when Paul hires her to ghostwrite his love letters to Aster Flores, a girl equal parts untouchably popular and intimidatingly smart. Secretly in love with Aster herself, Ellie refuses at first, but an outstanding electric bill pushes her to accept the request. As the pair’s scheme grows more and more complicated, the divide between Ellie and Paul’s communicative abilities grows wider, emphasizing a power dynamic defined by language.
Wu seems deeply interested in the politics of language: who gets to learn what, what it means to speak well, and the unique relationships children of immigrants have between their mother tongue and English.
As a filmmaker, Wu seems deeply interested in the politics of language: who gets to learn what, what it means to speak well, and the unique relationships children of immigrants have between their mother tongue and English. Every power dynamic is defined by characters’ ability to communicate. Ellie initially regards herself as intellectually superior to Paul, but grows to respect his emotional intelligence and willingness to learn. Aster communicates with Ellie-as-Paul as an equal and Paul himself is tongue-tied any time he comes into contact with her.
At home, Ellie takes on the outward-facing responsibilities of her father, left behind by a world notably intolerant of accented voices. This parentification feeds into the popular narrative of eldest immigrant daughters–in immigrant communities, the choice of the parent to move their family across borders and oceans is often framed as an effort to give children a better life. This places pressure on children to make good on their parent’s gamble to climb the social ladder and feeds into the model minority myth that encircles immigrants, especially Asian Americans.
When her father’s American dream didn’t come true, Ellie was left to make sure their lives didn’t fall apart. Even so, Ellie’s father isn’t entirely powerless. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, Paul, having recently learned of Ellie’s interest in Aster accuses her father of not really seeing Ellie for who she is. Unable to respond to Paul in English, he expresses his unconditional love for Ellie in Mandarin–and with such conviction that he changes Paul’s mind.
Struggles that could have easily been singularly felt by Ellie are attacked from all sides.
Wu also chooses to democratize the struggle between maintaining tradition and forging an individual path. Ellie wants to go to Grinnell College but feels obligated to stay close to home and care for her father. Aster wants to be a great artist but is expected by her father to stay and marry her high school boyfriend. Paul thinks he’s stumbled upon the next great sausage recipe (taco sausage), but fears changing a family recipe that has become a sacred text.
Struggles that could have easily been singularly felt by Ellie are attacked from all sides. What someone might have written as a hyper-specific immigrant story is born from that narrative but felt by all, as if to say “We’re not so different, you and I.”
Where Saving Face was bold with its primarily Asian cast and script spoken mostly in Mandarin, The Half of It is more populist in its setting, cast, and release on Netflix. These creative choices bring with them accusations of pandering to a white audience that, personally, I feel to be made in bad faith. Look, maybe we shouldn’t put all our effort into assimilating for the benefit of white America, but I don’t think that’s what Wu is arguing for.
Wu sees a divide caused by a fear of the unknown and wants to bridge the gap by sharing the story of a gay immigrant who comes into her own. Ellie doesn’t give in to white supremacy or become Paul’s sidekick, she becomes his friend. With The Half of It, Wu adds her distinctly queer and Asian viewpoint to the historially very white and very straight canon of high school cinema. I’m not one to think that’s a bad thing.
When Ellie boards her train bound for Grinnell College in Iowa, she only offers Paul a perfunctory joke as a goodbye. But though she’d never admit it, he knows she cares. As the train pulls out of the station, he runs after it, recreating a scene from a movie she’d previously derided as idiotic. Ellie watches, crying and laughing as she’s pulled away–that moron, he could never outrun a train. Hell is other people, hell is other people. But when someone who gets you has your back, those other people don’t seem too bad after all.