This article contains spoilers.
During these tumultuous times of COVID-19, I have felt incredibly stressed out and lonely. I’ve spent sleepless nights wondering about the health of my family, how we would cope with so much financial stress and when I would be able to see my friends and girlfriend again. Yet, in my misery, there was a silver lining: “The Half of It,” a new lesbian coming-of-age movie by lesbian filmmaker Alice Wu was premiering on Netflix.
“The Half of It” is the story of high schooler Ellie Chu, a Chinese American teenager, who is in love with popular girl and pastor daughter Aster Flores, a Latina. When goofy football player Paul Munsky asks Ellie to ghostwrite love letters and text messages to Aster under his name, Ellie must hide her feelings for Aster that puts her newfound friendship with Paul at risk.
I was looking forward to seeing a lesbian couple, both women of color, represented in a lighthearted film. Yet after finishing “The Half of It,” I felt deflated. I am grateful for Alice Wu’s perseverance in making queer cinema for Asian Americans and other people of color, but was ultimately disappointed by the film.
Ellie does not open up to Aster about her struggles and innermost feelings; instead, she opens up to Paul. “The Half of It” is advertised as a lesbian coming-of-age film, but it’s actually a film focused on a male and female friendship, while queerness is relegated to the sidelines.
The film follows some negative tropes surrounding lesbian films: Lesbian sexuality is seen as sinful and deviant, Aster cheats on her boyfriend Trig to engage romantically with Paul and Ellie and there is no clear happy ending. At the film’s end, we have no idea if the main couple begins a new relationship, or even keeps in contact.
However, maybe the movie’s worst offense is — rather than focusing on Aster and her relationship with Ellie — it gives the majority of its attention to Ellie’s friendship with cis straight white man Paul.
I am sorry, but I am forced to deal with cis straight white men in nearly every other movie I watch.
I do not care about men in this story. The audience of this movie should not have the romantic storyline dominated by a straight white man, especially at the expense of our queer Latina character.
There is barely any development of Aster’s character. We get barely any of her backstory, her family or her dreams. Any information about Aster is exploited by Ellie and Paul, used as tools in their plan to have Paul win her heart under false pretenses.
Paul is forced to learn Aster’s favorite books and position on immigration in an attempt to mirror the conversations Aster has been having via text message with Ellie (who she thinks is Paul). Rather than coming off as comedic, the obsession and stalking that Ellie and Paul participate in is creepy.
The two literally stalk Aster around a convenience store and spy on her through binoculars when she’s having dinner with her family. This is not the stuff of romance stories, but horror films.
Her character is not fleshed out and human the way it should be. Aster has no verbal interactions with her mother nor her siblings in the film; her father says a few lines to her during a montage but, other than that, never addresses Aster directly. Aster has absolutely no qualms about regularly cheating on her boyfriend, Trig, with Paul and eventually Ellie.
Wu’s version of Latinx representation is having Aster’s father speak a few misogynistic lines in Spanish, slapping on a Spanish last name to Aster’s family and having Aster work at a Mexican restaurant. Aster’s culture is not represented at all and has no influence on her as a character — she is Latinx in name alone. As a queer Latinx woman, Aster felt like a stranger; nothing about her reflected anything about my ethnic experience.
Understandably, Wu is a lesbian Asian American woman who does not know the queer Latinx experience. However, what upsets me is her failure to research different Latinx cultures and experiences with queerness. Wu could have hired a Latinx co-writer, but she did not. Frankly, the lack of effort put into Aster’s character felt lazy and insulting.
You cannot receive the praise of a diverse cast and fail to do the work to bring justice to these characters’ experiences — committing this offense is nothing short of superficial.
In comparison, Wu does a much better job of representing Ellie and her Asian American background. We get to see a glimpse into the hardships and struggles Ellie endures as an immigrant daughter — Ellie must call the electric company for her father due to his limited knowledge of English, and she is forced to help him with his job by making money from her peers.
Wu naturally and beautifully showcases Ellie’s culture in her daily life and the values she holds. This was incredible to see onscreen, and I wished our protagonists could have spoken and related to each other about the immigrant experience.
Ellie and Aster interact in person a handful of times, once in the beginning of the film and nearly an hour later when they take a trip to a hot spring. This is one of the best parts of the film and the longest part of the movie where the two interact and bond, yet there weren’t any more scenes like it.
The rest of the interactions between Ellie and Aster only happen through Ellie’s ghostwritten text messages and love letters, which Aster thinks were written by Paul. These are not honest interactions between the two women. We don’t see this relationship develop the way it should, and we are left with bits and pieces of subtext instead of cute and meaningful interactions.
Even Ellie and Paul’s friendship was difficult to watch. Paul eventually develops romantic feelings for Ellie and tries to kiss her in front of Aster, and Ellie rejects him and tries to explain herself to Aster. When Paul realizes Ellie’s feelings for Aster, Paul tells Ellie her sexuality is a sin and that she’s going to hell. He then ignores her until he can feel comfortable about her being a lesbian.
Coming out is already an incredibly difficult process for so many LGBTQIA+ people; can we not at least have a positive experience on television? Rest assured, we are aware of the dangerous and pervasive ways homophobia and transphobia affect our lives; it does not need to be constantly played back to us in film.
To make matters worse, Paul and Ellie never have a conversation resolving the hurtful things Paul told Ellie or his attempt to kiss her. No, instead they just remain friends as if nothing has changed.
I am not trying to be overly critical of “The Half of It” — there are countless of LGBTQIA+ films that have similar problems. This movie just disappointed me more than most because I had such high hopes for it. Finally, it seemed like there was a relationship onscreen that reflected my own, but instead I felt misled.
We must support movies like “The Half of It” to even have the chance to create something even better, something that is outwardly and unapologetically queer and uplifting. However, this doesn’t mean queer women, especially queer women of color, need to indiscriminately accept our crumbs of representation and be happy about it.
Anais Rivero PZ ’22 is a political studies major with a caffeine addiction. In her free time, she watches hours of queer cinema and TV.