Netflix has once again nailed the coming-of-age genre thanks to Alice Wu’s latest film The Half Of It. Notice I said coming-of-age genre because yes, this is a coming-of-age story, despite what the trailer wants you to believe.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lemis) is a shy Chinese-American high school student who lives in the fictional Squahamish, Washington with her widowed father. In addition to doing her father’s job, Ellie runs a popular business where she writes her peer’s paper for a small fee. Despite helping them pass high school, Ellie’s peers aren’t her friend, and they constantly make fun of her. After hearing about Ellie’s business, Paul Minsky (Daniel Diemer) approaches her with an interesting job opportunity. See, Paul wants Ellie to help him articulate his feelings in a love letter for the most popular girl in school Aster (Alexxis Lemire). In a bind for cash, Ellie accepts his proposition but there’s one problem, she’s secretly attracted to Aster too.
One letter turns into two which eventually turns into secret text messages where Ellie is pretending to be Paul. Not only does Aster not know that she’s not talking to Paul but Paul has no idea what Ellie is saying to her. This becomes a slight problem when Paul and Aster actually go out but Ellie somehow manages to save the day yet again. Things get even more complicated though as feelings get muddled and Paul ends up falling for Ellie who is definitely falling in love with Aster. Eventually, the truth about everything comes out and these three characters are forced to deal with the realities of their secrets.
While it’s true The Half Of It deals with love, it’s not a romance film, and its definitely not a rom-com because the focus isn’t really on who’s going to end up together. Are we curious? Of course, but we’re more invested in these characters discovering who they are and working through their feelings to uncover what type of love they’re actually experiencing.
What are the different types of love?
Well, the ancient Greeks believed that there were 8 types of love, each dealing with its own set of rules and feelings. The eights types are believed to be:
- Agape (unconditional love)
- Eros (romantic love)
- Philia (affectionate love)
- Philautia (self-love)
- Storge (familiar love)
- Pragma (enduring love)
- Ludus (playful love)
- Mania (obsessive love).
On the heels of the ancient Greeks, Dr. Robert Sternberg developed his own theory of love in the 1980s, which included some of the ancient Greeks’ findings but also expanded to include his own. Dr. Sternberg’s theory relies on the idea that love is a triangle. In other words, there are three components to love: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. These three components work in varying ways to create 7 types of love:
- Friendship (intimacy without passion and commitment)
- Infatuation (passion without intimacy or commitment)
- Empty Love (commitment without intimacy or passion)
- Romantic Love (intimacy and passion without decision/commitment)
- Compassionate Love (intimacy and commitment without passion),
- Fatuous Love (commitment and passion without intimacy)
- Consummate Love (intimacy, passion, and commitment are all present).
The Half Of It explores several of these types of love through the characters’ relationships with each other. In addition, it showcases how the types of love can change as relationships change.
Ellie and Paul
Much of The Half Of It centers on Ellie and Paul’s complicated relationship with each other. At the beginning of the film, Ellie and Paul are nothing more than strangers. Paul approaches her on her way home from school to ask her if she’ll help him fix his love letter for his crush Aster. As you know, Ellie originally declines the offer but eventually has no choice but to help Paul out because she needs the money. Only after Ellie agrees to help Paul to these to begin to move towards being friends. And that’s only the beginning of their relationship journey.
As Ellie begins to help Paul their relationship can be defined as entering philia (affection love) or friendship as Dr. Sternberg would identify it. This means that their relationship has an intimacy component to it but that it’s lacking passion and commitment.
Ellie and Paul’s friendship truly starts to blossom after the disastrous date between Paul and Aster. Despite the awkwardness of the night, Paul is determined not to give up on Aster even though Ellie advises he does. The film could have ended their and Ellie and Paul would have remained weird acquaintances but instead, it chooses to make a calculated move. See, this is when the popular teens drive by Ellie shouting out a mean nickname they have for her. Instead of ignoring it, Paul jumps into action to defend Ellie. This is the turning point and the scene that pushes Ellie and Paul into a friendship.
After defending her Ellie has no choice but to help Paul win over Aster and so they come up with a plan. As they gather information about Aster they spend more and more time together. Thus, their intimacy is further explored as they get to know each other beyond the confines of their high school. The first time we realize this is when they’re outside Aster’s house and Paul asks Ellie how she ended up in Squahamish and why she’s still there. Ellie is upset at first and tries to leave but after Paul rambles about his own home life, Ellie climbs back into the car and opens up to him. Most people don’t tell their entire life story to acquaintances which is why this is the scene that proves Ellie and Paul are friends experiencing a philia type of love. This is further exemplified as they continue to get to know each other beyond a surface level, like when Paul asks Ellie what her mom was like.
Ellie and Paul’s relationship with each other is complex though and it begins to shift, at least for Paul it does. See, Ellie maintains that philia type of love for Paul throughout most of the film — until the one climactic scene occurs. Paul on the other hand, well, he begins to mix passion into his feelings and thus his love begins to change from a purely platonic one into one that’s romantic. In terms of the Greeks’ beliefs Paul’s feelings for Ellie fall somewhere between ludus, the playful love and eros, a more romantic love. While there is a playful component to it, Paul is so desperate for love that its fair to believe that he’s chasing an eros type of love which is what he begins to think he’s feeling for Ellie.
It’s hard to tell when exactly this shift for Paul occurs because he’s still actively pursuing Aster for most of the film; however, we do see hints that his heart is longing for someone else. Part of me wants to believe he begins to realize he has feelings for Ellie when he listens to Ellie describe all the things Paul should love about Aster. As he’s listening to her talk he’s watching her and smiling almost as if he’s thinking similar thoughts about Ellie. Of course, that’s not how the scene plays out and instead of confronting his own feelings, Paul flips out because Ellie makes love sound so easy and yet he can’t articulate his feelings for Aster at all, despite supposedly loving her. Ellie feels bad and in turn, tries to build Paul back up by telling him that he puts in more effort than she’s ever seen someone put into loving someone and that’s what love is about. To me, hearing Ellie say those things about Paul caused him to see her in a different light. After all, isn’t Ellie putting in a lot of effort to help Paul out when she doesn’t have to? Perhaps, this is the scene that makes Paul question if Ellie is falling for him instead of him questioning the very real reality that Ellie is in love with Aster.
Still, their relationship is still grounded in the intimacy of friendship for the time being. We see their friendship continue to blossom as Ellie brings Paul home and Paul finally gets Ellie and her father, Edwin to try his taco sausage creation.
After that scene, their friendship enters a shift, and no it’s not because Ellie might have feelings for Aster but rather Paul might have feelings for Ellie. The issues begin to arise however as Paul misconstrues the Ludus type of love he is feeling for an eros type of love he’s yearning for.
Paul slowly begins to realize his feelings for Ellie, during Ellie’s piano recital. Ellie sits down at the piano only to discover that it’s been tampered with. Instead of letting her get laughed at, Paul jumps in once again and slides a guitar across the stage asking her to play her song. The way he says it shows he’s timid and scared something you wouldn’t usually see on a friend’s face. And as she plays we see Paul in the background looking at her with wonder in his eyes. And when Trig asks “when did Ellie Chu get kind of hot” we see Paul’s face shift to one that borders on jealous.
Paul’s romantic feelings begin to grow after that and it becomes clear that he might love Ellie as more than just a friend when he stops her from drinking at the party and takes her to his house to sleep off her drunkness. What makes it so clear that Paul loves Ellie is that he doesn’t try to sleep with her at that moment like so many other boys in films and in real life would have. Instead, he gives her his bed and sleeps somewhere else because he doesn’t want to hurt her or ruin whatever it is they have. In doing so he uncovers that she’s been the one who’s been writing letters to critics to get them to try his taco sausages. This is the first moment where Paul considers the fact that Ellie might have feelings for him but he’s still not sure.
Paul knows he loves Ellie at this point but he’s not sure if Ellie feels the same way, even though he thinks she might. And that’s why he doesn’t make a move on her that night. In fact, he only makes a move after Ellie, who avoids all school functions, shows up at the football game to see Paul. In his mind, that along with the letters he found confirms that Ellie likes him as more than a friend and that’s why he tries to kiss her after the game. Of course, it’s revealed that Ellie doesn’t have feelings for him and the truth about her feelings for Aster comes out.
Paul says some pretty hurtful things to Ellie which causes them to drift apart, except they still aren’t back to being strangers because they still care about each other. Instead of saying they hate each other, I would instead say that Ellie rejecting Paul caused him to go back into a philia state of love. This becomes clear when he googles “how do you know if your gay” and when he delivers his apology speech at the church towards the end of the film. And of course, there’s that playful friendship moment where Paul chases after the train when Ellie leaves that reminds us that these are just two goofy best friends who just want to see the other be happy.
While Paul is trying to figure out what type of love he feels for Ellie, Ellie has her feelings for Paul mostly figured out. However, I would argue that she too undergoes a shift of some sort. While her feelings towards Paul remain platonic throughout the film her love for him does grow. If we look at Dr. Sternberg’s types of love I would say that Ellie begins to experience companionate love for Paul. This is because she has made the commitment to have him in her life and she’s intimate with him but there isn’t any passion.
Given both of their journeys, I would say that at the end their love for each other borders on a pragma one meaning their love is built on commitment, understanding, and long-term best interests. They know they’re not going to marry each other and that they won’t always see eye to eye but they’re determined to see each other succeed and be there for each other no matter what.
Paul and Aster
Paul believes he’s in love with Aster and therefore he believes he’s experience Eros but that’s simply not the case. Paul isn’t in love with Aster though, instead, he’s experiencing a Ludus love for Aster, or infatuation as Dr. Sternberg would refer to it as. Both of these types of love mean the same thing in that they both deal with the feelings one goes through when they have a crush on each other.
infatuation which is defined by a person feeling passion for another person without feeling intimacy or making a commitment.
This is the most obvious form of love in the film and one most of us are accustomed to. Ludus, in essence, is a crush which is exactly what Paul has on Aster. After all, you can’t love someone without knowing someone and Paul knows nothing about Aster. In fact, he can’t even have a conversation with her because he’s so nervous about messing things up. That’s a recipe for disaster.
The idea that Paul isn’t in love with Aster as he claims he is becomes clear in the scene where Ellie asks Paul what he likes about Aster. Instead of rattling off things with true meaning, he responds to Ellie by saying “she’s pretty, and smart, and never mean.” While these things are nice they lack the depth that is shown when Ellie explains what else he could possibly love about Ellie. In fact, even after that scene Paul still can’t think of reasons to love Aster and instead recycles Ellie’s lines on Aster during their second date.
Instead of trying to get to know Aster, Paul continues to let Ellie do the heavy-hitting. He also completely blows the opportunity of having a real heart-to-heart conversation with Aster when she asks him if he believes in God. And yet, she kisses him in that moment perhaps as a test to see if he does truly love her. And while Paul does invite her to his big game after, once she’s gone he looks back at Ellie’s house because he doesn’t want her to see him kissing Aster because he knows now that he doesn’t love Aster, he loves Ellie.
In some ways, I think Aster is feeling the same sort of infatuation for Paul as he feels for her. After all, her whole life is being decided by her father, her boyfriend, and her faith so of course she’d be intrigued at someone who was standing in the way of that. And yet, for most of the screen time Paul and Aster share, she’s reminding him that they are just friends. Regardless of her feelings, I don’t think they’re ever truly friends like she believes because their relationship never develops into a philia type of love they way Ellie and Paul do.
In the end, Paul and Aster are nothing but acquaintances for each other.
Ellie and Aster
Much like Ellie and Paul’s relationship, Ellie’s relationship with Aster is complex.
There’s no denying that Ellie is infatuation with Aster even before Paul comes into the picture and as such, she is practicing a Ludus kind of love. What’s interesting about Ellie and Aster is that their love stays rather constant throughout most of the film with both of them feeling the same feelings towards each other — even if they don’t quite realize it.
Let’s start at the beginning, when we first meet Ellie she is carefully passing out the English essay’s she has written for her peers in music class. It seems like no big deal until the camera gets to AAsterstir who is studying her sheet music. When the camera goes back to Ellie it’s revealed that she’s been staring at her. It’s an innocent stare and one that lines up with Ellie’s crush on Aster.
Her feelings for Aster are made abundantly clear in the hallway when Aster helps Ellie pick up her books she has dropped. Ellie introduces herself to Aster because she thinks she’s invisible but she’s not because Aster responds with “Yes, I know.”
If you’re still not convinced, you definitely will be when Ellie tells Paul that she will not help him write a love letter to Aster Flores. Sure, maybe it’s because Ellie doesn’t want to be deceit, someone, into loving them but really its because Ellie doesn’t want to help someone else fall in love with the girl she’s already crushing on.
Once Ellie decides to help Paul out things get interesting. After all, Ellie was only expecting to write one letter for Paul but when Aster writes back they have no choice but to respond. Ellie could have told Paul that she was done and that Aster wasn’t interested after she called them out on plagiarizing but instead she tells Paul that they’re still in the game. Let’s face it, Ellie doesn’t want to stop writing to Aster because this is the only way the two interact — even if Aster thinks she’s talking to Paul.
The scene in the bathroom in an interesting one because its the first time we see Aster and Ellie together since the start of the fake letters. Ellie notices Aster first. She steals a glance and then goes back to adverting her gaze. While she’s not looking Aster steals a glance before looking down. For a moment that’s it until the both of them lock eyes through the mirror and Aster smiles. Of course, Aster walks out after the girls in the stalls start talking bad about her and nothing happens.
Except something does happen in the next scene that is important. We hear Ellie’s voiceover narration stating “people don’t see what they’re not looking for” as she walks down the hallway. Ellie walks in the center passing Aster who appears to be staring at Paul but if you look closer, she really appears to be looking at Ellie. This is the “obvious unseen” Ellie is talking about and our first clue that Ellie isn’t the only one who is infatuated in this relationship.
This infatuation begins to shift however to one that’s more playful and reminiscent of the Greeks’ ludus love type. ven though I’ve said infatuation and Ludus are basically the same, in Ellie and Aster’s case they are a bit different. See, the infatuation these two feel in the beginning is purely based on passion but as they get to know each other intimacy comes into play which is why it shifts to a strong example of ludus love.
One of the first scenes where we see this playful flintiness come to light is when they’re taking turns painting on the brick wall. They tease each other and encourage each other to keep painting, to keep reaching for their boldest stroke. Eventually, the painting morphs into a beautiful painting of a girl reaching for a star. They both return to it to stare at its perfect and its a touching moment that showcases the beauty that these two can create when they work together.
As the letters continue and evolve into texting Ellie’s feelings towards Aster move away from infatuation and enters a friendship or philia type of love. This is because the two of them begin to open up with each other, again even if Ellie is pretending to be Paul, and thus are becoming intimate with each other. But it doesn’t stay there for long because Ellie already has feelings for Aster and as they continue to get to know each other it becomes clear that Ellie might be experiencing an eros type of love for Aster. This is abundantly clear during the scene where Ellie lists off all the things Paul could love about Aster.
This playful love really plays out in the scene where Aster invites Ellie to come to her favorite secret spot with her. Aster shows up at Paul’s house to show him a painting she’s been working on but instead of finding Paul, she finds Ellie in his bed. Ellie is quick to jump into damage control but its really not needed. The mood of the scene shifts when Aster shows Elie the painting and Ellie points out her favorite stroke of the painting. For a moment, Aster looks at Ellie with confusion. It’s almost as if Aster has figured out that she’s been talking to Ellie all this time.
Perhaps that’s why Aster asks if she can go with Ellie because she wants to see if Ellie really is the one she’s been talking to all this time. This is truly the first time Aster and Ellie have interacted in a physical way outside of school. Ellie introduces Aster to her “secret” world at the train station and in return Aster introduces Ellie to her secret favorite place.
The scene at the hot springs could have gone different, and it probably would have had these two been partaking in an eros type of love. Instead, their relationship is grounded in the playfulness of ludus and we see this as they interact with each other. They’re vulnerable and intimate with each other without it turning into a sexual thing. In fact, they could have kissed at that moment but they don’t This is the moment, the scene where it becomes clear that Aster might be interested in Ellie, for herself instead of the Ellie who hides behind Paul’s letters.
Even though we think it’s clear that Aster has a thing for Ellie, Aster doesn’t acknowledge it until the final scenes of the film. In fact, she doesn’t even fully realize that Ellie has been the one writing Paul’s letters until they both come clean in the church scene. Or rather, when Ellie directly quotes a message she sent to Aster as Paul. Of course, Aster doesn’t run into Ellie’s arms which is understandable. However, these two do get a happy moment in the end.
Ellie apologizes to Aster and even though these two haven’t talked since the revelation, there’s still that playfulness between them. In fact, Aster even admits to Ellie that deep down she thinks she knew the whole time. She goes even farther by stating that she has thought about Ellie in that way. This is earth-shattering to Ellie who for the most part believed she had a crush on a straight girl. Once again, it’s only after a character has gotten a clear sign of interest from the other part does Ellie makes her move and finally get her kiss.
Even then, Ellie and Aster are still the perfect example of ludus love. Of the playfulness, uncertainty, and joy that comes from a crush.
Trig and Aster
We don’t see much of Aster and Trig’s love type in the film since it’s not the focal point. I do want to briefly talk about it though.
In Trig’s mind, it’s clear that he thinks he’s experiencing an eros type of love. He knows he’s in love with Aster, he’s met her family and they love him. He’s even got their entire wedding and future planned out. Aster, on the other hand, isn’t so sure of her relationship. In fact, she spends most of the film emotionally cheating on him with both Paul and Aster — but that’s a topic for another day.
These two clearly are not on the same page and lack intimacy to sit down and discuss their difference with each other. They’re your textbook example of a high school couple who has grown apart. Dr. Sternberg has a term for their type of love: empty love or love that lacks intimacy and passion.
In other words, Trig and Aster are only with each other because of its safe option. Its the option that they had committed to when they first started dating. Though they aren’t in love, or at least Aster isn’t, they can’t bear to break it off because what if this is as best as it’s going to get.
Ellie and Edwin
Another relationship that is explored in The Half Of It is the storge love that Ellie and Edwin have for each other. Storge, as defined by the Greeks means familial love. While it’s true that these two do love each other because they are family I also believe they’re experiencing a pragma, or endearing love, for each other. I say this because storge love is too basic to explain the love that Ellie and Edwin share.
If their relationship was purely storage they would have a more traditional father-daughter relationship but they don’t. Instead their love for each other is built on something stronger, on pragma.
This is first made clear when we see Ellie taking over the responsibility to call the gas company because her father is unable to do it. While its true some children would do this for their parents, most of them would have to be asked. Instead, Ellie takes the responsibility upon herself because she knows it’ll make Edwin feel better.
We get a better glimpse into Edwin and Ellie’s complex relationship when Paul asks her how they ended up in Squahamish. This is the first time we get a sense of just how unhappy Edwin really is and how stuck they really are in Squahamish because of his inability to become an engineer like he’d hoped for. Ellie’s unconditional love for her father is further exemplified by her taking over his job in the wake of her mother’s death since Edwin has been too depressed to do it.
Some might say that Edwin isn’t experiencing any time of love towards Ellie since he is willing to burden her with the responsibilities of caring for him despite being only 17, but that’s simply not the case. Edwin loves Ellie just as deeply and unconditionally as she loves him. The scene between Edwin and Paul is where this becomes clear.
See, Paul goes over to bring Edwin his monthly supply of meat. Edwin naively asks if Paul and Ellie broke up since he hasn’t been around. Not wanting to out Ellie, Paul does his best to explain why Ellie seems sad without saying the words outright. This is enough to make Edwin understand what isn’t being said. Instead of freaking out, Edwin opens up to Paul. He explains how much Ellie has helped him since her mother died. And he goes on to ask Paul, “have you ever loved someone so much, you don’t want anything about her to change?” That right there is Edwin’s way of saying that he knows who Ellie truly is and that he’s okay with it. Not only that but it’s the scene that proves Edwin loves Ellie with his entire heart. That their love is not just storage but its pragma.
In the end, Edwin loves his daughter so much that he is willing to overcome his depression to ensure that she can live the life she deserves without having to worry about him. And that is why they’re love is enduring and familial.
Ellie and Self-Love
Finally, I want to talk about Ellie’s journey to practicing self-love or philautia as the Greeks would have called it.
At the beginning of the film, it’s clear that Ellie doesn’t think highly of herself. She doesn’t have friends and she doesn’t try to make any. She content with living the same day over and over again. And she completely shoots down the idea of going away to college to pursue a liberal arts degree when her English teacher brings it up.
Through her friendship with Paul and her own self-discovery, as she connects with Aster, she begins to realize that she does have worth and a purpose that’s bigger than Squahamish. Its only then does she decide to be truthful with herself and her desires. She applies to the liberal arts school, she comes clean about her feelings towards Aster, and she forgives Paul for his ignorance.
The Greeks believed that you have to love yourself before you can properly love someone else which is precisely why Ellie doesn’t end of with anybody at the end of the film. In fact, its the reason why none of the characters end up with someone in the end because they all need to grow and understand themselves before they can open their hearts to someone else.
In the end, The Half Of It tells a beautiful tale of love, loss, and rejection all the while showcasing how love comes in many different forms.
The Half Of It is streaming now on Netflix.
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Featured Image Source: Netflix