Writer-Director Alice Wu on Exploring Universal Feelings of Self-Discovery in ‘The Half of It’

With her Netflix film “The Half of It,” writer-director Alice Wu tells a love story which celebrates diversity, and the way we overcomplicate ourselves. Her movie has already struck a chord, winning the Best Narrative Feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Set in a small town world where everyone knows each other and you’re expected to marry your high school sweetheart, the film follows a Chinese-American student, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), who makes money on the side by writing her classmates’ essays. She also lives with her widower father, Edwin (Collin Chou), an immigrant engineer who she helps keep order at the town’s sole train stop. A love-smitten jock named Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) approaches Ellie to help him craft love letters to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Paul’s nice but not the most well-read, while Aster has a literary mind, so the football player needs Ellie to give him the right words. But soon it is Ellie who begins to develop deep feelings for Aster. 

A story told in the tradition of “Cyrano de Bergerac” while quoting Sartre and Plato, Wu’s film is the classic parable of an outsider loving from afar, only this time it has a queer angle that celebrates the freedom to be as we feel, not as society demands. Ellie must learn about making friends beyond initial perceptions. She makes a connection with someone like Paul, who could very well be from another planet by comparison. Wu, making her return to directing after a long hiatus, sat down with Entertainment Voice to talk about youth, love and belonging when it comes to “The Half of It.” 

“The Half of It,” it’s a teen romance yet more than that. What’s the genesis of the film?

I’d made a film that came out 15 years ago, spent a few years working in the industry, basically working for hire. I had actually sold a TV pitch for ABC TV. But then my mom had a serious health crisis and I dropped everything and moved to San Francisco to be with her. I thought I’d left the industry entirely. I assumed my 30s were about film and my 40s would be about my family. Then I ended up getting pulled back in by a studio executive I knew who we’d always wanted to work together, so I wrote something for Dreamworks Animation. So I started writing again. I had a few ideas and this was one I’d had for years and I decided to buckle down and write it. Long story short, I wrote it and it happened rather quickly. I sent the draft to some people I knew and in a few months I had financing offers and decided to go with Netflix.

The film has such a sincere tone to it. How much of the artist is in the material in this case, how much of it is taken from personal experience?

 I write from a very emotional place. So emotionally my films are totally me. I’ve heard from friends that my main characters are very similar to me in many, many sorts of ways (laughs). But the plots of the movies, none of that has actually happened to me in my life. In my first film a woman gets pregnant and gets kicked out of the Chinese community, none of that ever happened to me. Here I’m obviously not 17, I didn’t grow up in Washington State, and I just turned 50. But it’s part of what I love as a storyteller. I just make it all up, but emotionally it’s very true. I write the characters so I can feel their feelings as I’m writing them and they will be informed by how I feel about love, or friendship. I don’t know how to write something that won’t reflect me personally, just not factually, except in textures. I did grow up eating chicken pies with my dad. But I didn’t have my own “Cyrano” story (laughs). I was also called a few names in high school, being Chinese-American, but nothing threatening. 

Everyone fits their respective roles so well. How did you bring this great cast together? 

I always like to joke that I must be a bitch to cast for because I’m so specific about what I want (laughs). And it’s not that I’ll find exactly what I was looking for, but how to then work with someone to mold them into what I want. What I love with young actors is that they’re not jaded yet and are very open, and so I’m now looking for a certain set of qualities that I can see emotionally. Leah herself is very different from the character, but she’s so magnetic and there’s something very interesting about her. And with her it was about talking about the character to then find herself in her. 

Yes, and her co-stars compliment their roles. They feel like they do form this bond.

With Daniel, he actually is quite similar to the character of Paul. He’s much smarter in terms of book smarts, but he has a central decency and that was a very hard character to find. So many actors are pretty boys, and Daniel is handsome but he also feels like he’s in that zone of being a man, but a boy-man, your heart just goes out to him. As the movie goes on you just fall in love with him because he has this sweetness. And Alexxis is so naturally intuitive. I must have read 500 people for each role and she was the first one where I felt it. Her role is a bit undersold, because it may seem like what she’s doing is easy, but it’s not. There’s a lot of nuance in what she’s doing that makes the love interest so much more interesting. She’s not just this hot person saying a few lines.

What do you hope the film says to, or how do you hope it reaches audience members who are not in their teens? Because of course many of the emotions in this story are universal.

I totally agree. I think when it comes down to it I think we all actually do regress to becoming teenagers when it comes to love. The story could be set in a nursing home, somebody has to ask out their crush, and I don’t care if they’re 80 or 18, they’re going to feel nervous. I don’t think I would need someone older to get it more than someone who’s younger. It’s funny how people say “oh how did you write this so authentically? They sound just like real teens.” Well, teens are just people who happen to be teenagers. When it comes down to it the way they speak is not that different. 

Yes, feelings and powerful emotions have a way of defying labels and time.

Yes, and the more authentic you write the more universal it becomes. The more specific you are the more human something feels and the more people can recognize the humanity within themselves. This is a film that is for everyone. Everyone has a teenager inside themselves, and everyone can connect with someone who they thought would be the last person where that could happen. And that person could end up changing their life and their understanding of themselves. 

It’s refreshing to see Asian-American filmmakers telling good stories with Asian-American characters. It’s an example of the diversity that’s still opening up in U.S. media.

I think it is really exciting the world that we’re in right now. There are so many more ways to have your stories be seen. I just write from a very personal place. I hope more people do that, whether you’re Asian or not Asian. I think the more different kinds of Asian-American stories are out there, the more people will just see these stories as not from this race or that race, but they’ll just go to see different humans having stories. Our country isn’t primarily straight white men, but they have a disproportionate number of main character roles, and the main character is usually the one we identify with. So the more main characters reflect the actual demographics of our country, it will actually increase everyone’s sense of being seen.

The Half of It” begins streaming May 1 on Netflix.