I was excited about Netflix’s newest teen romance film The Half of It. Its trailer promised a twist on the traditional high-school love triangle: nerdy Asian American bookworm Ellie (Leah Lewis), who is secretly a lesbian, is paid by Paul (Daniel Diemer), a white boy she goes to school with, to write love letters for him. He’s convinced he’s in love with Aster (Alexxis Lemire), their high school’s resident cool girl, but in the process of writing these letters, Ellie falls for Aster too. Instead of this blossoming into an eventual romance between Ellie and Aster, the film prioritizes Ellie’s relationship with Paul, and does so to the point that it minimizes moments of racism and homophobia.
Paul and Ellie work through their understanding of love together, which creates moments of deep softness in their friendship. On a daily basis, a truck full of Ellie’s classmates shout “chugga-chugga-choo-choo” at her as she rides her bike to and from school, making a racist mockery of Ellie’s last name, Chu. Paul’s shocked when he witnesses this while he and Ellie are walking home from school together. He chases their schoolmates down, shouting, “What kind of wusses say dumb shit, and then drive away?” Later, when Ellie panics during a talent show because those same boys have ruined her piano, Paul encourages her to sing because he knows she’s hiding a lovely singing voice.
Ellie returns that same care, comforting Paul in his moments of need. Halfway through the film, Paul freaks out, wondering if he even knows what love is. After all, the way Ellie describes her admiration of Aster sounds so deep and real in comparison to how Paul describes his feelings for Aster; still, Paul doesn’t initially realize why Ellie’s feelings sound so real. Her love for Aster is based on their conversations, whereas Paul’s feelings for Aster are based on how pretty she is. But given that they’re living in the very conservative town of Squahamish, Washington, it doesn’t occur to Paul that Ellie is queer, and it doesn’t feel possible for Ellie to share those feelings with him or Aster.
Eventually, all of this swirling emotional confusion comes to a head: On Paul and Aster’s first in-person date, Ellie lurks outside, waiting in Paul’s car and listening in. Paul stumbles again and again, so Ellie decides to take the reins: She begins texting Aster, and tells Paul to act like he’s the one doing the typing. It works. Her friend is succeeding; he’s getting the girl she wants. Later, Paul shares with Ellie that he and Aster held hands and he kissed her. “How does that happen?” Ellie says, looking as confused as she is hurt.
Eventually though, Ellie and Aster do get their moment in the sun: Aster takes Ellie to a pond that she dubs “her favorite secret place.” They float in the pond on their backs—Aster stripped down while Ellie is fully clothed—their heads nearly touching, as we watch from an aerial view. It’s a baby lesbian love bubble, and they both feel it, though neither of them act on it. Ellie tells Aster that her mom always tells her, “Every song, movie, story, has a best part.” Aster responds, “Was that it?” In a straight teen romance film, this is the moment where we’d anticipate a kiss. Instead, it fades into deep-down longing. That same night, Aster’s feelings spill into a moment with Paul; she kisses him deeply, though she clearly wants to kiss Ellie instead. And as if the pain of watching your crush kiss someone else wasn’t enough, when Paul realizes Ellie likes Aster, he tells her that her being a lesbian is “a sin” and that she’s “going to hell.”
This homophobic comment from Ellie’s only friend hits her hard, especially because she’s constantly facing racism in her small town. When she’s finally welcomed into the “cool crowd” and invited to a party, her classmates say, “Chinese girl came!” before cheering, “Chinese girl!” When she sees Ellie at their family home, Paul’s mom welcomes her as, “Oh, it’s Paul’s Chinese friend.” While it likely would have been unrealistic to present a white small town where an Asian American doesn’t deal with racism, it felt sharp in a romantic film about a closeted queer teen. It would feel less sharp if the majority of queer films about teens didn’t often carry so much pain.
Hollywood’s ongoing quest to depict realistic queer characters often includes leaning into the struggle of coming out, exploring homophobic environments, and portraying an aching loneliness that’s common among young queer people. In this way, The Half of It mirrors Olivia Wilde’s 2019 film Booksmart, which was heralded as “groundbreaking” because Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), one of its two protagonists, is a queer teen who has feelings for her high school’s “cool girl” Hope (Diana Silvers). Though Amy’s inclusion feels as if it’s worthy of celebration, audiences never see Amy’s romantic happiness onscreen. Instead, we’re promised that she’ll eventually find love—Hope comes to her house before graduation and suggests they could have something real—and then the credits roll.
Straight teens get to dream of romance and see it reflected onscreen, while lesbian viewers get to hope that maybe a girl will think about being with them down the road.
Similarly, Aster hints that she could be interested in something real with Ellie, but we never see it play out onscreen. The same can be said of Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This, which ends with two high-school girls—one queer and one questioning—sharing that maybe there could be something between them, until another character’s head literally explodes. While these teenage-focused TV shows and movies flirt with the idea of lesbian relationships, they quickly pivot before their casual interest can evolve into any fully realized romance.
While it’s more realistic to depict teen relationships ending once one or both parties head off to college, straight characters are still given the chance to bask in cheesy romance in films like Everything, Everything (2017), The Kissing Booth (2018), To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) and its sequel, P.S. I Still Love You (2020), and The Sun is Also a Star (2019). Straight teens get to dream of romance and see it reflected onscreen, while lesbian viewers get to hope that maybe a girl will think about being with them down the road.
The Half of It seems to be more about the halfway happiness Ellie’s given: maybe some acceptance, maybe a friend, maybe a first love. It’s not the happy story we were sold via the trailer, and it feels like more promises that only halfway delivered. In the beginning of the film, a voiceover from Ellie explains, “In case you haven’t guessed, this is not a love story. Or not one where anyone gets what they want.” But damn, I sure wish this could have been.