Teen romantic comedy “The Half of It” (2020) draws it title from the ancient Greek notion that humans were once more complete beings but were divided into halves by the jealous gods, with the effect that humans began to spend their lives searching for the other half of themselves. While we may no longer think of love and romantic partnerships in quite such a mythological or literal way, this idea still lurks behind our thinking when someone refers to their spouse as their “better half” or when someone claims the person they love “completes” them.
Interestingly, despite its introductory lesson in how Greek mythology viewed the search for love, delivered in a voice-over from the protagonist Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), the movie warns us right away that it isn’t a love story, at least not an entirely conventional one. And, indeed, “The Half of It” ultimately does focus its quest for love and acceptance on that first “half” – the self. The Cyrano-inspired, love-triangle plot does explore how one meets, attracts, and falls in love with the seemingly unattainable object of one’s affections, but the ultimate lesson remains that you can’t find true love until you learn to love yourself.
From the start, this film shows us Ellie Chu as being too smart, too caring, and too ambitious to fit in with her high school peers. The best she can do is focus on school, make a little extra money writing papers for her classmates, and take care of her depressed father. In fact, despite her apparent lack of friends and the drive-by bullying of ignorant teens, she sort of has everything she needs at the start of the film. She just can’t appreciate what she has until she sees it through a different lens. The narrative follows the pattern of a Cyrano-type story, but in the end all three people in the triangle have to accept themselves first and foremost.
While Ellie may see her queerness as her worst and most secret “flaw,” she also recognizes that she possesses many other traits that hold her back from a comfortable sense of belonging in the community — her intelligence, her passion for learning, her semi-orphan status, her race, her family’s immigrant status, and so on. However, as in most Cyrano stories, there’s never anything really anything seriously wrong or unlovable about the secret romantic who tries to help their friend court an impossible love object by providing the magic words. That big ugly nose doesn’t matter so much to anybody but the one who wears it. What we all lack is just self-love. When we learn to love ourselves, well, like the song says, that’s the greatest love of all.
While this Netflix original might not dig as deep as it could into the troubles of being a queer kid in a narrow-minded little town, it’s still a good and important movie. Not only does it give us another protagonist of color, its kind-hearted and understated exploration of how hard it is to find love when you can’t quite fully accept yourself remains a vital message that resonates beyond the muted tones of this somewhat understated film. For my part, I like that this movie doesn’t promise undying, passionate love and some eternal, happily-ever-after ending.
Sometimes its enough to realize that you’re okay just the way your are. Accept yourself and others will too.