From the years 1991 to 2001, a younger me would have never imagined the film industry would come this far. Back then, as a Chinese-American child actress, I never went out on auditions for the lead role in a film or television show. I would only get auditions for the friend, the studious kid, the school nerd or the adopted daughter, who, almost always, only had a few lines.
Now, with films like Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Always Be My Maybe, Last Christmas and the recently postponed, highly anticipated live-action remake of Disney's Mulan, people of Asian backgrounds are finally being truly seen in the entertainment industry. Netflix's latest young adult film, The Half of It, starring Leah Lewis of CW's Nancy Drew, is just the latest film making waves.
In the film, a shy and soft-spoken, straight-A high school student named Ellie Chu (Lewis), has created a side hustle for herself by doing her classmates' homework in order to help her single father financially. Strapped for cash, Ellie reluctantly agrees to help school jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) write love letters (and text messages) to his crush, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). However, unbeknownst to Paul, Ellie begins to form a secret crush of her own on Aster.
Sound familiar? The coming-of-age story is being seen as a modern, LGBTQ version of the classic and timeless tale Cyrano de Bergerac, in which a poet named Cyrano, who is in love with Roxane, assists his comrade Christian in winning her heart by writing love letters to her signed with Christian's name.
With its storyline alone, The Half Of It stands out among recent YA films. However, the movie doubles down by featuring an Asian-American actress as the lead. So it's really no surprise that the director and screenwriter of the film is Alice Wu, whose debut feature film was 2004's Saving Face, about a Chinese-American woman who came out to her very traditional parents. At the time, Saving Face was a watershed moment in Asian-American LGBTQ film.
"Traditionally there hasn't been that many roles for someone that looks like me,” Wu shared in our interview, echoing my earlier sentiments about the struggles Asian actors have been facing.
"The thing that's exciting in the last few years, it seems to have increased because of TV," added Wu. "You know, like Fresh Off the Boat. So, it's starting to shift, which is very exciting. I don't know that that has changed my approach to filmmaking, though, because I think from the beginning I'm somebody who likes to take commercial hooks and I like to populate it with characters that you don't usually see. Because I do believe we're all more similar than we are different."
Wu then gave a glimpse into her mind, sharing, "If I can get, like, a 50-year-old straight, white guy to relate to a 17-year-old closeted, Chinese immigrant girl or her depressed, widowed father, then I've won. Like, anytime you can have that happen, and the way to have that happen is make those people the main character."
The star of the film, Leah Lewis, stated, "Ellie's story is getting to be told, and it's such a different kind of story too. She's a much more quiet, internally rich character than your normal main character. I think it'll be really, really good for people out there to see themselves in that."
Lewis also shared that she was "really, really excited about the representation" when signing onto the project. "There was not a specific conversation that was had about that but, just through the sharing of stories of my upbringing, and Alice's upbringing, we were really able to draw from that as inspiration to really pump into these characters."
As for finally being able to see an Asian actor as the main character in a film, Lewis said, "For years, we have watched Asian-Americans play the best friend or, literally, the girl at school who writes papers, or anyone who is not the main character."
Playing the role of Ellie's secret crush, Aster, is Alexxis Lemire, who spoke about the LGBTQ community's representation in the film as well. "I definitely know through Aster's character, it's a very interesting scenario, where they are in a very small, conservative town," said Lemire, who added, "I think, and I hope, a lot of people can relate to that and it could build up some courage to feel like no matter where you are, and what you're going through, that there are other people out there, somewhere, that are going through, and experiencing, the same things and I really hope that they can connect with that."
Daniel Diemer, who plays school jock Paul Munsky agreed, saying, "I just also hope that it spreads this message of learning to love the person ... and to take away the judgment that's been put in place, and to start just, like, learning to actually find out who the person is, and caring about them and the relationship that you have with them."
While many of us didn't have the tools or, most importantly, the confidence to identify these themes to share with our peers in high school, Demire, Diemer, Lewis and Wu are hoping today's teens are inspired to do so after watching The Half of It, which is shaping up to be one of the most daring and thought-provoking streaming films to debut during quarantine yet. And if the success of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is any indication, Netflix’s latest release is going to be huge.