Netflix is knocking it out of the park with lesbian representation during lockdown. In the space of a week they’ve given us A Secret Love, a heart-warming documentary about two older lesbians, and The Half of It, a stunning teen movie inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac.
The Half of It is the story of three misfits in their final year of high school. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is smart. She’s book smart, with excellent grades and a full scholarship ahead, but she’s also got a head for business. Charging $20 per essay, Ellie makes serious bank from her classmates – cash that’s desperately needed to keep her household afloat.
Since her mom died, Ellie and her dad have been struggling emotionally as well as financially. As one of the only Asian kids in small town Squahamish, Ellie is already punished for being different. On top of being super white, Squahamish is full of Christian fundamentalists, so she keeps her feelings for Aster Flores a secret.
Aster is one of the most beautiful girls in school. She has also caught the eye of Paul Munsky, a socially awkward football player. Owing to his limited vocabulary and shyness, Paul asks Ellie to write more than just his homework. He wants her to write Aster a love letter. Being broke, it’s an offer Ellie can’t resist. One letter turns into a campaign of seduction. Ellie gives Paul a crash course in literature and art history so that he can talk to Aster about the things that matter to her. When he echoes Ellie’s thoughts, Aster is intrigued.
The letters Ellie and Aster send one another gives each girl some desperately needed space to be herself. Ellie is free to explore her creativity on her own terms. And Aster can move beyond the expectation that she will walk into marriage with a popular boy, living a safe and conventional life. Through talking about art, literature, and politics, Ellie and Aster expand their horizons beyond Squahamish.
Cyrano de Bergerac was first performed in 1987. Edmond Rostand could never have imagined his play being reincarnated as a lesbian film by the streaming giant Netflix. But new technology is what makes The Half of It work. Once trust has been established through letters, Ellie’s seduction of Aster takes place mainly over text. The anonymity of phones, where so much of young people’s lives are now lived, is what makes the plot convincing. Even when Paul takes Aster on a date, Ellie continues to text Aster while pretending to be him. Of course, the deception is not sustainable. Nor is it really fair to Aster. But it’s fun while it lasts.
As The Half of It unfolds, it becomes clear that the most important thing is not who gets the girl. The real love story is the beautiful, unexpected friendship that blossoms between Ellie and Paul. Each has been invisible to the people around them until they begin to learn more about one another. With Paul’s support, Ellie performs at the school talent show in clothes that reflect who she is rather than an ideal of femininity. Behind the scenes, Ellie writes other letters on Paul’s behalf – letters with the power to kickstart his culinary career. Their friendship is so pure.
For a lesbian audience, Paul should be easy to hate. After all, he’s our girl’s main competition. But there is something so sincere about his character. Daniel Diemer sells the role completely. Although being raised hardcore Christian has given Paul some misgivings about Ellie’s sexuality, he is the first friend who sees Ellie as she is and accepts her. What Paul lacks in the academic department, he more than makes up for in perceptiveness. Just as Aster falls for Ellie’s words and ideas, viewers will end up loving this white jock because he was written by a woman of color.
Alice Wu’s script is whip-smart and hilarious. The Half of It will also have you deep in your feelings in how it treats themes of friendship and love, racism and homophobia. It’s impossible to resist rooting for Ellie, Aster, and Paul – even when the things they want are in direct competition.
On top of being a gorgeous story, The Half of It is a step forward in terms of representation. Popular teen rom coms have historically been two things: very white and very straight. Since John Hughes pioneered the genre back in the ‘80s, few mainstream teen blockbusters brought diverse stories to the big screen. So to have an Asian lesbian who lives in flannel as the protagonist of a Netflix film written and directed by an Asian woman – it’s a big deal.
The Half of It is now streaming on Netflix.