Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Alice Wu | The Half of It

love and sausage
by Douglas Messerli

Alice Wu (writer and director) The Half of It / 2020

Alice Wu’s film The Half of It, from 2020, might easily be dismissed as yet another coming of age comedy-drama about discovering oneself suddenly as part of the larger LGBTQ community. Depending upon the writers and directors, such a realization can either be confusing and painful, as in David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen, or a far easier transition, supported by fellow students, as in Craig Johnson’s Alex Strangelove.
     The Half of It visits neither of these extremes. The central figure in Wu’s film is simply a well-adjusted young Chinese-born American girl, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a bit shy perhaps, but so intelligent and capable that she has not only taken over her father’s duties as a train station master, while he continues in near perpetual mourning for the death of his wife. A straight A student as well, Ellie earns extra money, mostly to pay the electric bills and other family needs, by writing most of the local football players’ English essays.
     Her teacher, Mrs. Geselchap (Becky Ann Baker) well knows what is going on, but almost appreciates Ellie’s plagiaristic interactions for allowing her to read intelligent essays instead of the drivel the males of her classroom might have otherwise produced. A graduate of Grinnell college, in a small town in Iowa (I’ve been there). The teacher insists that Ellie should apply there, knowing that with her grades and work ethic, she would most certainly be accepted.  But Ellie cannot imagine leaving her small town of Squahamish because of the dependency of her father (Collin Chou).
      One day, however, a new figure comes on the scene in the form of another football player Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), who does not want her to write a paper, but a letter, in particular a love letter to the girl in which he has fallen in love, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of the local church deacon of the church where the “heathen” Ellie plays the organ.
      Ellie, at first utterly refuses. But Paul pleads so charmingly—and the new electric bill is three-months overdue—that before she even realizes it she is involved in a Cyrano de Begerac-like bargain with the eager young man.
      After a few letters (not just one, the terms she had originally dictated) and some speech lessons for the not-so-bright Paul, he insists that he should now meet with Aster, who has responded to the letters positively by texting.
       But Ellie argues that he is not yet ready, and works with Paul far further than she had committed to. Finally, at the first meeting, he is disaster, not knowing how to respond to a book which Aster has traveled to Portland’s great bookstore Powell’s to give him as a gift. But Paul cannot even make everyday small talk, and the two sit, in an out-of-the-way restaurant—necessary given her father’s religious strictness—both extremely uncomfortable with each other’s company.
      Obviously, there needs to be further lessons in simple conversation, and further letters—at one moment Ellie, in her description of Aster, describing the girl’s six variations voices so eloquently that we know that she loves Aster far more than the enthusiastic Paul, who merely appreciates her beauty.
       Meanwhile, Ellie and the viewer begin to perceive aspects of Paul which, despite his rather inchoate way of expressing himself, is actually quite loveable—especially when talking about his life-time dream of creating the perfect sausage taco.
       Chasing away those rowdies from the school who have previously mocked the determined, badly dressed and virginal Ellie, the two become friends, Paul’s mentor and father both try Paul’s current version of his sausage, against their suspicions about it. Amazingly, and despite the carboard-like texture of the taco (we’ve all had those store-bought taco shells, which I continue to hate, while Howard willingly accepts them.), both agree that the sausage is tasty, and before long Ellie is also writing nearby food critics, which Paul has previously tried but failed to attract. Soon after Paul has begun working in the kitchen with Ellie’s father in an attempt to discover new versions of sausage.
     Paul’s second meeting with Aster succeeds only a little better than the first, she suggesting that the two talk, this time, about everyday things instead of books. Paul is convinced that their conversation has gone on beautifully, but Ellie, listening in, knows, as we know that Paul is still no natural charmer.
      Yet he is so exited that the encounter that when he observes both Aster and Ellie in the crowd for a football game, wherein the Squahamish is already down 49 to 0. Catching, almost by accident, Paul runs the ball across the goal post, putting the team, at least, the score board which, apparently, has not occurred for an exceptionally long time, and turning Paul into a bit of a local hero.
      After accidentally discovering Ellie’s letters addressed to local food critics, he rushes forward to suddenly kiss her—evidently her first kiss—unfortunately at the very moment that Aster is standing at the doorway. Ellie rushes forward to try to explain to Aster that the event is not at all what it looks like.
       At the school amateur concert—mandatory for all seniors, and despite the fact that Ellie’s performance is preceded by the popular school jock, Trig Carson and his band, Ellie plays a simple guitar song of her own creation, wowing even those who have previously made fun of her.

     Aster even invites Ellie to her home, but quickly suggests they take a ride in her car to Aster’s “favorite secret place,” a hidden hot spring, where she suddenly gets undressed and enters. Ellie, fully dressed in bib overalls and terribly colored long johns, gradually joins her, with Aster eventually pulling off Ellie’s clothes. For a few minutes, the girls enjoy the warmth of the sun and pool and, we gather, one another’s company.
      This is perhaps the only suggestion that there might be a budding lesbian relationship between the two. But it is never reiterated, and is only a hint at what their friendship might mean to each other.
      Back at the church the next day, the self-enchanted Trig is asked to lead the group prayer, but takes the time, instead, to ask Aster, in front of all parishioners to become the perfect wife whom he has been seeking.
      The confused and quite passive Aster is clearly about to say yes, until first Effie, from her high location in the organ loft quickly registers a protest, soon followed by Paul’s again somewhat incoherent, rambling about why it would not be a good choice.
       Aster’s father and his religious associates, unable to comprehend these deniers, ask Trig to proceed, but this time Ellie truly speaks out, descending her loft position to report before everyone that it is she who has written all Trig’s assignments for years, and attempting to make it clear to Aster that she is better loved by others, both herself and Paul.
       Suddenly realizing who has really written Paul’s letters, Aster breaks away, moving down the church aisle, stopping only to slap Paul’s face for his outright lies.
        Ellie, despite her inclinations to stay with her father, has indeed applied to Grinnell College and has been accepted. As she is about to travel off to Iowa (to a town as small almost as Squahmish, but, at least, filled with college students) she encounters Aster one last time, the beautiful and beloved girl admitting that she perhaps had always suspected that the beautiful letters she received were penned by Ellie. She announces that she has applied to art school, news that makes Ellie quite happy for her.
       Ellie prepares to go, but suddenly turns back to kiss Aster full on her lips, insisting that she will be back in two years to discover what then might happen between the two.
       It becomes fully clear that Ellie now has come to accept herself as lesbian and that, just perhaps, that the rather clueless Aster may eventually recognize her own sexuality.
       In a movie she has previously attended with Paul, Ellie mocked the lover running beside the train to say a last farewell to his girlfriend. She well knows trains, she insists, and no one can actually catch up with them.
       But now Paul—who has come to her father’s station to see her off—runs after the train in which Ellie sits. Unlike Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, we know that there is no chance in a million years that Ellie will sweep the running would-be lover into the car with her. For she now knows herself, and like Gertrude Stein writes in her great opera The Mother of Us All, realizes that “Men Are Such Poor Things.”
      Earlier, Ellie’s father has insisted that he will keep the boy busy for years, testing out new versions of pork and sausage.
      Wu’s film is handled so deftly, that even when nothing seems to happen, we recognize it as representing absolutely everything that’s profoundly important about life. This film won at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature

Los Angeles, June 23, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).  

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