The Half of It opens with a musing on Plato: specifically, his idea that humans began with two heads, four arms, and four legs, but were sliced and diced by the gods and left forever searching for their missing other half. The stop-motion sequence emphasises the longing for connection that this severing left, showing an increasingly crumpled and shredded figure fumbling miserably after its own reflection. Until, at last, the figure finds its mirror image and they reunite… before the narrator dismisses the whole myth as silly and unrealistic.
It’s easy to see why our protagonist, Ellie—who is introduced to us via that poetic yet cynical voiceover—feels this way. In the first instance, she has no hope of finding her mirror image in her rural American hometown. As the child of Chinese immigrants in a sea of white teenagers, there’s no one who looks like her or can reflect her experiences back to her. As a queer teen, it becomes even more complicated. As both of these things, and as a child who had to grow up very quickly following the death of her mother, she enters the story pre-sapped of romantic naivety. She swats away the Greek myth of the other half in a monotone, and repeatedly dismisses the whole notion of romance throughout the film; yet there’s a sense of impossible yearning that underscores her whole character.
In the end, The Half of It is about longing: for acceptance, for freedom, for love, for something you can’t quite pin a name on, something that you know exists just beyond the horizon but who knows if you’re ever actually going to get your hands on it? It’s about small town isolation, the pressure to fit into expectations, the way that we can easily become silent and stagnant and cynical. And it’s about how love—familial, friendship, romantic, self-love—can haul us out of this. And it’s about the unshakeable bond between a gay nerd and a wholesome himbo, a dynamic that more media should, frankly, be exploring.
Ellie’s immediate foil is Paul: a jock who is piled high with naïve romantic notions. Ellie runs an essay-writing service, but Paul enlists her not for help with homework, but with a love letter. A love letter to Aster Flores, the girl that Ellie has a crush on. She initially balks at the idea, but financial strain and a hallway bump with the girl of her dreams causes Ellie to reconsider. And so begins her quest to edit and rewrite Paul’s declarations of puppy love, which leads them both down an unexpected path into love in all its weird shapes.
Despite wooing Aster being the main goal that drives the plot (in theory), the real love story at the heart of the movie is the platonic one between Paul and Ellie. In ordinary circumstances, they’d never even talk to each other, and in a worse movie they would end up as romantic rivals in a love triangle. In an even worse movie, they’d end up together. But nothing in The Half of It is that straightforward.
Paul is adamant that he’s in love with Aster when he brings his letter to Ellie for edits. Why does he love her? Well, she’s pretty and cool and nice and stuff. Not to say his feelings aren’t genuine, but they ring shallow to the audience and to Ellie. Then again, what is love? Isn’t thinking someone’s pretty and cool and nice a fair enough start? It’s difficult to pin down a definition of romantic attraction, especially in a conservative setting with such an established crush-to-high-school-sweethearts-to-marriage pipeline. Aster’s in that pipeline, wondering if she should just give in and marry her dopey rich boyfriend because it would be the sensible thing to do. Is that love? Being with someone because it’s the sensible thing to do?
Though Ellie seems like the more romantically savvy one, she’s basing her methods in books and poetry and art and winds up completely stumped when it comes to her own feelings. She has to earnestly ask questions like “How does it happen? A kiss? How do you know?” Both Paul and Ellie (and Aster!) are as lost as each other, and this is really what brings them together across the movie.
Aster accidentally falls for Ellie through her letter-writing, without realising it’s really her. Paul accidentally falls for Ellie through spending so much time with her and genuinely coming to know her as a person. At least, he thinks he does. To me, the reason he almost kisses Ellie is up for interpretation. For me, he does it because he thinks he should, because if a guy feels close to a girl that’s what it means, right?
Queerness and non-romantic love arrive to trouble those simple myths: both the Ancient Greek “other half” story, and the assumptions about romance and maturity that cling to their town’s culture. When Aster and Ellie hang out in the river, floating on their backs, the shot (the one I’ve used as the header image) shows their faces and bodies reflected directly underneath them in the water… almost making it appear as though they have two heads, four arms, and four legs, reminding us of the image of the pre-split humans in the opening scene.
Is that yearning these characters feel the ancient search for their other half? Or are we each already whole? Maybe we put the pieces of ourselves together from loving other people, whether we end up with them or not. Maybe we don’t need to flounder, wondering what love “is”, because we’re already complete without it.
By the end of The Half of It, the quest to “get the girl” has more or less gone out the window: the relationship between Ellie, Aster, Paul, and their own personal feeling is so tangled that romance between any two of them is downright impossible. But they’ve each grown from knowing one another, they’ve each experienced heartbreak and happiness in a way they hadn’t before.
Aster leaves the movie smiling, one step closer to figuring herself out and on a renewed mission to be understood as a whole person, not just someone else’s idea of the perfect girl. Whether Paul’s heartbroken over Ellie or really does love her purely as a friend, it’s plain to see that he loves her—selflessly, wholesomely, in a way that demands those big movie moments that he always believed in and Ellie always thought were dumb.
When Paul chases after the train that takes Ellie away to college, waving and smiling his big goofy grin, doing the exact thing she called a trite movie cliché in the middle of the story, Ellie calls him a moron… but she smiles, and she’s sad to see him go. It’s the sweetest scene in the movie (yes, for me, even sweeter than Ellie’s spontaneous goodbye smooch to Aster) because it brings the whole beautiful theme of the story together. The credits roll and the movie leaves us with the suggestion that Ellie believes in love now, albeit only after realising that it doesn’t need to mean having, and finding, an “other half”.
I can see how the ending may have been disappointing for some people, but thinking of it as a “bad” ending is missing the point of the movie. Ellie doesn’t need to “get the girl” for this to be a meaningful queer story, or for her to be a meaningful queer character. She doesn’t get shoehorned into the trope of the pining, left-behind lesbian or any of the romantic clichés she’s so wary of. She ends the movie more confident, more emotionally available, and most importantly, whole.