Most movies that center around that awkward-yet-wonderful time of life that is our adolescence are seen as coming-of-age flicks, but according to Leah Lewis, The Half of It is something different, something more. "I would say it is a very realistic story about an immigrant who is coming of age, coming into her sexuality," she explained to POPSUGAR. "It deals with finding friendships and finding your way back to your family. I feel like it's a coming-of-life story."
That's a lot to put on one film, but luckily, Alice Wu's production lives up to the hype. Lewis stars as the film's protagonist, a high school senior named Ellie Chu, who is too smart for her own good and the small town of Squahamish. All she cares about is her grieving father and making sure that they keep their cozy home above the train station, which she ensures by helping to pay the bills with a side business writing English papers for her classmates. Enter Paul Munsky, earnestly played by Daniel Diemer, and Aster Flores, the high school unicorn that is a popular girl who happens to be genuinely kind and played by Alexxis Lemire. The three become caught up in a complicated love triangle loosely based on the famous play Cyrano de Bergerac.
The story of Cyrano de Bergerac isn't a new one, and most adaptations of the 19th-century play follow the premise to the letter: Person A pretends to be Person B to help the latter woo Person C, whom they're usually both in love with. The Half of It not only flips the story's usual gender roles, but gives it new life by upping the stakes for the young characters. Ellie only feels brave enough to send letters to Aster under Paul's name because she fears how the other young woman would handle knowing that the person she's connecting with is another girl. And Paul, well Paul gets all kinds of twisted up in his feelings throughout the film.
"I remember when I first read the logline, I was immediately excited. I mean, it's a typical Cyrano de Bergerac story, but with this added factor of there possibly being a coming of sexuality," Lewis recalled. "I was very thrown by that in all of the most positive ways. I went in to audition for Ellie, who I immediately fell in love with. I just remember thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, if I'm not part of this, what am I going to do with myself?' So very early on, I was just jazzed to even be able to have the opportunity to audition for the role to begin with."
"She goes about her life as this shy wallflower, like this fade-to-the back character, even though her life is so colorful at home."
Even speaking over the phone, it was obvious that the actress — who currently stars on The CW's Nancy Drew as a modern take on Georgia "George" Fan — was completely enamored with the young Ellie. And it's hard not to be: you either find her loner-nerd aloofness relatable or can't resist falling for the soft marshmallow that's slowly revealed as her defenses fall away. Not that she doesn't have a good reason for those defenses — as possibly the only Chinese family in Sqahamish, Ellie and her father are noticeably isolated from the rest of the town and have no one but each other as anchors in their daily lives.
It's an existence that Lewis acknowledges is trying for her character. "Ellie at the beginning of the film lives a very modest, routined life. You can immediately see that she is very responsible, as she has a list of things that she has to take care of before she even leaves the house," she pointed out. "She goes about her life as this shy wallflower, like this fade-to-the back character, even though her life is so colorful at home."
Despite not seeming wallflower-ish in any way, Lewis admitted that there were many ways that she related to Ellie. The 17-year-old high schooler was modeled from real-life experiences that Wu herself had, but Lewis revealed that the director highlighted ways the actress could relate to the character to create a more authentic story. "The way that Ellie writes is very similar to the way that I express myself in my everyday life. I take pen to paper, almost every single day, and that is very important to me," she said.
Of course, there's the most obvious similarity between the two, which is that they're both Asian American. Lewis, who was adopted from China when she was 8 months old, acknowledged that though her family life is different from Ellie's, their experiences growing up were similar. "There wasn't that large of an Asian community [in my hometown] for me to explore that part of myself and feel accepted in that aspect. Similarly with Ellie, as far as we know, her family is kind of the only Chinese family in Squahamish," she said.
For Ellie, her social isolation is compounded by the fact that her father is still grieving over the death of her mother and rarely socializes for fear that people won't understand him because of his accent. He heavily relies on Ellie to act as the family's voice and, in some ways, allows Ellie to act as the parent. It's a heavy burden for a high schooler, but it doesn't prevent the two from being close. It's a familiar dynamic for children of immigrants, which I explained to Lewis is the reason the father-daughter relationship strongly resonated with me. The actress felt the same, noting that their dynamic hit close to home with her because it's obvious that they love one another.
"Being a teenager and discovering your place in the family can be a very interesting experience. At that age, I don't think I was as close to my parents until I needed to draw closer to them. Similarly, Ellie and her father don't have this dialogue until a huge event pops up in their life and brings them closer together as well. And because he's not as fluent in English, we don't see them communicating so much with words, but more with their actions and the way that they move with each other at home. It's in the secret moments where he's there for Ellie when she is sad," she said.
"I feel like Paul is the first instance of Ellie and her father truly being seen by somebody in this town. Her father stays at home and doesn't really have any friends, and then Paul enters the picture and starts bringing in meat for him and hanging out with him. It's cool seeing Paul kind of open up both of these characters, it's really beautiful. That was one of my favorite things!"
"That is the moment where we realize someone finally sees her and how beautiful is that?"
Paul, the second half of The Half of It's doomed love triangle, is the catalyst for more than just Ellie and Aster's world properly colliding. The earnest jock becomes Ellie's first friend through the sheer desire to know her outside of their farce: defending her from bullies, asking questions about her family and life, encouraging her to do what she loves and play her music. He doesn't just become Ellie's friend: he becomes her partner, her confidante, and shows her another face of love that isn't her father. He shows her that, despite not understanding her completely, people can still care about her and love her. It's a beautiful relationship, and one that doesn't fail to get Lewis emotional when she talks about it.
When I asked her what she would say was the most significant moment in the duo's friendship, Lewis warned me no less than three times that she would probably start crying while talking about it. (Her voice definitely wobbled a few times.) "The most significant moment in their relationship was something that Ellie didn't even see when after everything was said and done: Paul goes to her father and still brings him the meat," she said. "That little action just shows his love for her, his acceptance for her. He literally says to her father, 'You don't see her.' Oh my God, I could cry just thinking about the fact that that is the moment where we realize someone finally sees her, and how beautiful is that?"
"We were like our characters where we just wanted the best for each other and we just loved each other so much."
On the other hand, Lewis's favorite scene with Diemer is the final scene, where Paul and Ellie say goodbye to each other at the train station, which Wu made special for both actors. "Daniel and I became close friends offscreen and Alice totally embraced that. She would always pull us aside and tell us different things about each other. Right before the train scene, she pulled me aside and asked me what I wished for Daniel in life. I just thought we were having a conversation and I was like, 'Oh, I hope he has a good life,'" Lewis recounted. "Then right before we shot the goodbye scene, she whispered in my ear what Daniel wished for me in my life. I completely just broke down. We were like our characters, where we just wanted the best for each other and we just loved each other so much. So, I'm just reduced to tears every time I think about it."
Not only is that a ridiculously sweet behind-the-scenes tidbit, but it also lends even more sentimentality to an already beautiful scene. For Lewis, the scene allows viewers to "finally see the growth in these characters." By the end of the film, Ellie has allowed herself to accept love from someone else, namely Paul, who has pushed past what he's been taught to fight for his relationship with her. "Seeing Ellie cry at the end, you finally see her accept and feel that love and friendship," Lewis explained. "For Ellie, that is really hard, because it's a whole 180 from that moment back to when they were in the car and Paul starts to ask Ellie about her personal life. Ellie's not used to loving or talking to other people in that kind of intimate way. So you see both of the characters just open up and bloom by that moment."
The emotional ending of the film is a very welcome conclusion after seeing the two friends fall apart when Ellie's feelings for Aster (and Paul's for Ellie) are revealed in a crushing scene. Lewis admitted that the scene was especially difficult because of the sensitivity of the moment. "These are real-life situations that people go through. For Ellie to be discovered rather than her getting to express these feelings naturally, it was a very intimate moment," she said.
"It's the first time that these twin fire souls finally come together and realize that they see each other for who they are."
By that point in the film, Aster and Ellie's relationship is relatively fragile, on the cusp of possibly becoming a friendship but too new and delicate to be anything solid. But there's something more between them that is unspoken, thanks in part to Ellie's feelings and to the intimacy they built during what is my favorite scene of the film. The two find themselves at a local lake after Aster seeks Ellie's company, and they bond during a tranquil dip in the water. They discuss music, their families, and relationships, but the hushed intimacy of the scene speaks more than words ever could. It's a meeting of two souls that have finally found the one other person who truly gets them out of the hundreds of others who never could. It's not just romantic: it's affirming in a way that speaks to a deep connection that I desperately wanted to see more of.
"The scene between Aster and Ellie is particularly special because it's the first time that they're face-to-face with each other and having these real conversations. Paul is not there to be the middleman anymore; there is no veil that Ellie gets to hide behind, and it's kind of same with Aster. It's the first time that these twin fire souls finally come together and realize that they see each other for who they are," Lewis said about the scene. "It was so special because, once again going back to just being seen, I think this is the first time these characters had uttered those words to another person. That's huge for them, and the fact that they feel so comfortable around each other speaks on the natural chemistry that's there."
She added, "Just shooting it with Alexxis was magical. It was our last day on set and we were in this gorgeous hot tub spring that our set department built for us. It was rewarding because not only was it the last day, but getting to shoot it with someone who was my best friend was like, 'Are you kidding me? Really? Are you sure that we get to do this?' Alice was amazing beyond words throughout the whole thing."
Lewis and Lemire's bond definitely lends to the closeness that grows between Ellie and Aster, and it makes any viewer watch their final scene in the movie with an unavoidable air of hopefulness. If anyone says that their heart didn't pound out of their chest during that ending conversation and kiss, y'all are lying! And though Lewis admitted that it's strange when "your best friend falls in love with the girl that you fell in love with and you kind of also fell in love with your best friend," she still hopes that the trio stays in close contact.
Yes, it sounds a little ridiculous when it's said out loud, but The Half of It manages to capture the messiness of being a teenager, falling in love (and realizing you don't quite know what love even is yet), finding your soul's other half, and figuring out who you are when you didn't think anyone would ever care to learn who that is. There's a lot of love and discoveries that need to be navigated, but Lewis has faith they'll figure it out. And maybe there's space for Aster and Ellie to make beautiful art together in the future.