Spoilers for Netflix's The Half of It below.
In Netflix’s new young adult film The Half of It, protagonist Ellie Chu (portrayed by Leah Lewis) tells viewers from the get-go that we’re in for a ride much different than the other teen romance movies we’re used to watching. “This is not a love story,” she narrates in one of the movie’s first scenes, when she’s gazing longingly at Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) during music class while Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) listens in from a window. “Or not one where anyone gets what they want.”
A warning like Ellie’s might not bode well, but there’s plenty of love and romance in the movie written and directed by filmmaker Alice Wu — it just doesn’t come from where you’d most expect it. At its heart, this is a movie about friendship. One of the most captivating aspects of The Half of It is how it flips the tropes that typically run rampant in this genre of movies, queering these clichés and imbuing friendship with a level of intimacy that is usually reserved for the protagonist and their endgame.
Ellie and Paul first meet because he wants her to ghost-write love letters to Aster so that she’ll fall for him. Unknown to him is that Ellie also has a crush on Aster. At first, she declines, only to say yes later because her family needs the money that Paul’s offering. The Half of It is a queer twist of the Cyrano trope, derived from Edmond Rostand's classic play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which someone employs the help of a friend to give them what to say in order to woo their romantic target.
As one can predict, their plan blows up in their faces. But The Half of It queers the Cyrano trope beyond simply Ellie having feelings: Aster opens herself to some level of queerness as well. In her final scene with Ellie, she admits that deep down she probably knew the truth about Paul’s messages to her and that it’s not like the thought of falling for Ellie didn’t cross her mind. “If things were different, or if I was different,” Aster says to Ellie. If this movie fell prey to hegemonic heteronormativity, Aster’s feelings would have completely dissolved the instant she found out another young woman was behind the correspondence. Instead, it embraces fluidity queerness and depicts how sexual identity exists on a spectrum.
There’s even a glimmer of hope as she postulates who she might be after a couple of years of figuring herself out away at art school, enough so that Ellie has the confidence to plant a goodbye kiss on her crush. Aster laughs with giddiness – perhaps she and Ellie are endgame in the near future.
Furthermore, the tropes in the film go beyond the Cyrano. Time after time, we’ve seen how covert affairs and secret plans often have the two masterminds falling for each other. There are Harper and Charlie in Set It Up after playing matchmaker for their two bosses. Lara Jean and Peter end up together in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before after what was supposed to only be a pretend relationship. Sure, Paul does fall for Ellie after the high of a football game touchdown, kissing her while she has an arm full of Yakults. However, it quickly turns sour and hurtful, him realizing her attraction for Aster and accusing her of a sin that’ll send her to hell.
It’s a heartbreaking scene, to see the trust and connection built between Ellie and Paul suddenly come crashing down due to Paul’s close-mindedness. If anything, it shows the pitfalls of when intimacy blurs with misguided expectations. There’s an air of Paul going in for the kiss because that’s what you’re expected to do as a young man when you become so close to a girl, when she’s your biggest fan and confidant. The fallout proves that that’s not always the case, that he didn’t need to ruin the friendship and that intimate, platonic relationships can and should exist. Thankfully, by the movie’s wrap, the two have reconciled things and are closer than ever after Paul shows his support for Ellie and how hard it must have been for her during a scene at church.
Earlier in the film, the two are sitting watching a movie where a man runs after a train in which his lover is boarded. She can see him running after the locomotive, a grand romantic gesture that shows his undying love for her.
“It shows he’s a moron,” Ellie contests. “Who outruns trains?”
The Half of It even closes by putting a platonic twist on the tropey train station farewell. As Ellie says goodbye to Paul and her father, departing for Iowa on a train, sure enough Paul comes running alongside her window. It’s what finally brings Ellie to tears, jokingly calling him a moron between her sobs. His sprint is indeed a grand romantic gesture, not because they’re in love, but because they love each other so deeply. Their care for each other brought them intimately closer to one another, along with catalyzing their own journeys of self acceptance and love. Those are the friends that you hold near and dear to your heart, the ones that push you to be your best self possible, that know they can’t outrun a train but they’ll try to anyway.
There are so many things to praise about The Half of It, a flurry of reasons it’ll make you feel almost every emotion possible. It’s unafraid to poke holes in the tropes that we’ve seen far too often in romantic movies, and fill them up with lessons about queerness and friendship. In the end, no character got what they wanted. They got what they needed, even if they didn’t know it was just a friend who saw them for who they are.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue