Since the creation of the genre, the teenage romance is practically sacrosanct in coming-of-age narrative. If it isn’t there, it seems that the film is unfit in describing how high schoolers transition to adulthood, as if romance is the only way to develop personal identity. However, the idea that love is crucial to adulthood is a distinctly heterosexual narrative; high school romance to be a stepping block into the eventual nuclear family.
Despite all of the frustration associated with the coming-of-age film, it isn’t fair to not give credit for what they are: a wonderful escape. For audiences to see themselves beyond every awkward misstep of their own teenage years, and instead be swept into an idealized adolescence is more than refreshing; it is needed. This was the reasoning of my excitement from The Half of It’s previews, even if they seemed to seamlessly fall into the stereotypes I am so used to seeing. I simply thought it would be a narrative where the lesbian is able to receive the love and joy of a heterosexual ending. An ending where nothing goes wrong. The love triangle would finally tip into the favor of the marginalized voice.
The intricacies of the film, however, start within the very first scene, with the protagonist, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), describing that “this is not a love story: not one where anyone gets what they want.” Down to its very core, the film understands that LGBTQ+ youth (and in this case specifically, lesbians) are unable to achieve these tropes. While Hollywood’s high school is often crafted as a place for love to blossom, it is also distinctly white and heterosexual. With this sentence, Alice Wu recognizes the impossibility of even fantasies of high-school romance for lesbians. Instead of the conflict relying solely on external sources, Ellie’s internal conflict of homosexual desire in a small community festers. It perhaps is even stronger than the external conflict of having a crush on Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire).
It is particularly poignant that there is no essential villain in the film. Yes, Aster is part of an extremely religious family, and Paul is competing for her affection. But none of these factors seem to act as a villain per se. If there was any conflict it’s in the roles every character is supposed to play. By pushing against these stereotypes of what is assumed of them, every character is faced with the unbearable conflict of growing older: the search of finding themselves. Ellie is faced with her desires in contrast to the homophobia that permeates through her town.
For lesbians, falling in love is a lonely endeavor. It is a blow so incredibly deep, unable to even be uttered above the surface. While the love triangle is by no means an underused plot device (Ellie does not compete with Paul for affection), The Half of It breathes new life into the genre, allowing both platonic and romantic affections to grow. The friendship that forms as a result of shared affections is not only refreshing but gratifying – allowing Ellie to exist beyond her sexuality. Deep down, her coming-of-age story is just the same as everyone else’s, with the desire to understand herself and her desires beyond what those expect of her.
Writing is crucial in understanding how this narrative is depicted. It is no secret that writing has been inherently valuable in the documentation of lesbian existence for centuries, for it is the medium where the fantasies are given meaning. In every sentence Ellie writes to Aster, it so clearly represents how compatible the two are for one another. She understands her in a way Paul never can. The mask of a heterosexual romance is the only way that Ellie is able to even exist as a lesbian. It is a necessary outlet for her to put her feelings into words. Hiding behind heterosexuality ironically allows the lesbian to be seen.
It is by no coincidence that Ellie’s letters follow stereotypical cliches. The letters follow the motions, what Ellie finds she should say by mimicking the practices of heterosexuality. By posing as the male, she is reinforcing the gender binary of affection – the very thing she breaks with her lesbian identity. It is a subtle operation of how prevalent these ideas are in Ellie’s ideals of romance. The letters are overly flowery, as if she is in love with the possibility of being understood by another. She, above all else, wants to be accepted for who she is, verifying her desire as natural and normal.
Even when Aster ultimately rejects Ellie (at least for the time being, as she is unaware of her own desires), there is no sense that she is alienated by society. Paul, despite being confronted with the antithesis of his small town’s values, eventually learns that his friendship with Ellie transcends all supposed prejudices. He allows her to be accepted. He understands her in a way that she needs – beyond the ideals of romance. While not the typical neatly packaged romance, it ends with a love letter to friendship and empathy.
By the end of the film, Ellie develops her own voice. She becomes more aware of her own desires instead of pretending to be someone that she is not. She no longer uses writing as a way to hide herself from others. Instead, she decides that it is most valuable to understand herself and how her own identity operates. It is a simple character arc, but it is a vial one. It pulsates with self-appreciation and validation.
Alice Wu’s understanding of the confusion that LGBTQ+ youth face is nothing short of phenomenal. It is a common experience for LGBTQ+ youth to experience their teenage years when they are older as a result of the intense pull of heterosexuality, so much of their supposed ‘golden years’ of high school are hindered by the confusion of their feelings and the forced repression of their desires. Wu subverts the tropes for the high-school genre in order to show how unique of an experience high school is, allowing for a more accurate and sympathetic take for those that were unable to have the stereotypical high school experience.