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Let’s talk about the ending of The Half of It

The queer Netflix romcom badly botches its climax. It didn’t have to be this way.

Leah Lewis stars as Ellie.
Ellie has an incredibly hectic senior year in The Half of It.
Netflix / KC Bailey
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Half of It very nearly continues Netflix’s strong track record with teen comedies, of which the apex is still 2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Much of this modern teenage Cyrano de Bergerac, with a queer twist, is the kind of gentle fun you’d want, and both Leah Lewis’s lead performance (as the shy and awkward Ellie) and Alice Wu’s direction are terrific.

But throughout the first two-thirds of the movie, you might find yourself thinking things like, “Hey, Aster, the girl Ellie has a crush on, isn’t really a character, huh?” or “This sure seems like a lot of plotlines to cram into one movie!” or “Does anybody at Netflix understand how the college admissions process and/or time work?” These are minor quibbles in the face of the overall story, particularly when it comes to the easy-breezy friendship chemistry between Ellie and goofy neighbor Paul (Daniel Diemer), but you might find yourself thinking about them. At least a little bit.

In The Half of It’s last third, all of those problems come back at the same time. The resolutions to essentially every major storyline disappoint, and the movie relies on out of nowhere character turns that feel forced and unnatural. In particular, the third act undercuts what had, to that point, been one of the movie’s strong points — the small-town world it built for Ellie, Paul, and Aster to live in.

So let’s talk about why the ending of The Half of It lets the rest of the movie down, and why it’s ultimately so disappointing that it does. It’s so close to working.

Spoilers, of course, follow.

The actual ending of The Half of It isn’t bad. But to get there, it has to take some big leaps of logic.

The moment when The Half of It started to head south was in the wake of Paul scoring the first touchdown the characters’ high school football team had scored in over a decade.

Throughout the movie, Paul has been courting Aster, at least somewhat secretly (as she is far more popular than he), but Ellie has been the one doing most of the actual work of courting her, via handwritten letters and instant messaging apps. Aster thinks she’s falling for Paul; she’s actually falling for Ellie — classic Cyrano! The movie gives you just enough hints that Aster might be queer to suggest that this story could really be heading in any direction.

In the wake of Paul scoring the touchdown, though, he looks up into the stands to see Aster cheering him on, then looks over to see Ellie doing the same. Once the game’s over, he goes to find Ellie, presumably to talk about what he should do next in re: Aster. Instead, he kisses Ellie, because in a heteronormative romcom, this would be the part where the lead guy realized the nerdy lead girl was the right one for him all along. Ellie, horrified, pushes away from him. And, soon enough, Paul realizes that Ellie has feelings for Aster, not him.

This moment actually totally works. It’s a neat subversion of a romantic comedy trope, and it follows naturally from both Paul and Ellie’s arcs so far. But it completely spins the movie off its axis into some other version of itself entirely.

Ellie and Aster pause for a moment beside Ellie’s bike.
Ellie and Aster have a quick chat about things.
Netflix / KC Bailey

For starters, remember how I said that this was the first touchdown anyone had scored at the high school in over a decade? This is a thing that is basically not established in the film in any way, which made me realize how many other plot elements the movie had introduced without following up on them, an omen that didn’t bode well. (Similarly, this plot point badly tanks the film’s timeline, but we’ll get to that.)

Paul also needs to use this time to suddenly reveal that he thinks being gay is a sin, even though that’s not something that has been established as part of his character to that point. Yes, he goes to what seems to be a conservative church, and yes, such an attitude would be preached there. But Paul doesn’t seem to particularly believe in this form of Christianity to the degree that it would destroy this particular friendship. It comes across as what it is: a complication designed to draw Paul and Ellie apart just long enough for both of them to feel sad about missing their friend.

But also in here, it turns out that Ellie is about to leave for college, even though the timespan of the movie seems to have encompassed roughly a couple of months at the start of Ellie’s senior year. (The more I tried to figure out the movie’s timeline, the more it gave me a headache, which is maybe not what you want out of a teen romcom.) This is all part of a larger problem within The Half of It’s story structure, which is that it keeps awkwardly shoehorning in teen movie tropes — a school talent show, a big football game, college admissions essays — without really figuring out a way to give each of them weight. This wreaks havoc on the movie’s internal logic.

All of this comes to a head in what is somehow simultaneously the movie’s best and worst scene, a confrontation set at the same church we’re supposed to blame for Paul’s surprise homophobia. Ellie, who doesn’t believe, is the church organist (a thing established in the early going of the movie and then mostly forgotten about for most of its running time). Paul, as mentioned, attends the church. And Aster is the pastor’s daughter. This is a solid enough setup for Paul to declare his love and Ellie to admit she was the one who was actually courting Aster, causing the conservative congregation to gasp in shock.

Except ... that’s not what happens. Instead, Aster — a high school student — is proposed to by her boyfriend Trig, a complete nonentity of a character who seems to exist mostly so that Paul and Ellie don’t have their friendship torn apart by their competing crushes on Aster. Trig’s presence is scattered throughout the movie, and his intention to marry Aster is as well, but it’s clear, always, that Aster never cares much for him. Indeed, she spent most of the movie more or less dating Paul, going out with him to the local diner several times. How on Earth did gossip about this not get back to Trig, a character who seems to exist only when the plot needs him to?

The resolution of this scene — Ellie reveals that she wrote the letters to Aster by obliquely referencing something from them — does work well, but the path there is such a mess that its impact is muted, when it should be the film’s ultimate romantic highpoint. The whole sequence reveals how hollow the conceptualization of both the town and the church are, and how incidental many of the characters are to the plot. (I had forgotten Freaks and Geeks’ Becky Ann Baker was in this movie until she popped up in this scene to offer a witty bon mot.)

The actual ending of the movie: Ellie works up the courage to kiss Aster, who doesn’t return the gesture but doesn’t not return the gesture (Aster’s going off to art school, so give it a few years, Ellie!). Paul sees Ellie off to college.

It’s not bad, but it’s almost too little, too late, and it only served to make me wonder more about the convoluted timeline. It’s a disappointing ending to such a promising film.

Maybe teen movies aren’t supposed to balance this many elements? Except here’s one that did so perfectly!

Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson in Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson star in The Edge of Seventeen.
STX Entertainment

Trust me when I say that all of the above is roughly half of what happens in the last third of The Half of It. (That sentence contains a lot of words that mean “fractions.”) I haven’t even talked about Paul’s dreams of making it big with something called “taco sausage,” or Ellie’s relationship with her dad, or the fact that she works at a railroad, or any other number of things, all of which are either ham-handedly resolved in the last third or dropped entirely.

When I was done with The Half of It, I found myself thinking that maybe all of the stuff it tried to cram into its story just didn’t work because there were too many elements, period. The movie would be better without Trig, with more of a focus on the church’s influence over the community and/or Paul, with a stronger attempt to make Aster her own character instead of “the love interest.” (There’s a half-hearted stab at this late in the second act that is a lovely scene but, again, too little, too late.)

Then I started thinking about another teen movie I’ve loved recently, which is also streaming on Netflix (though Netflix didn’t produce it): the 2016 Hailee Steinfeld vehicle The Edge of Seventeen. Like The Half of It, The Edge of Seventeen balances about 15 different plot elements across its running time, and like The Half of It, its timeline is hard to parse if you think about it too much. Both movies are even exactly the same length — 104 minutes. They’re both set in the Pacific Northwest! I could go on.

But Edge of Seventeen works wonderfully, spinning all of its plotline plates and never letting any of them drop. It has a seemingly preternatural sense of when to, say, check in on its main character Nadine’s relationship with her mother, then letting that relationship sit on the back burner for a while as the movie attends to other things. It is, in the story it’s telling, the movie The Half of It is trying to be, except Seventeen’s protagonist has a crush on a guy, not a girl. And if you compare the two films qualitatively, Edge of Seventeen is way better. (It was one of my favorite movies of 2016 and probably my favorite teen movie of the last decade.)

In trying to figure out why the disparity in quality between these two movies was so considerable, I realized precisely what separated them: In Edge of Seventeen, the other stories are only significant when they’re significant to Nadine. Her best friend starting to date Nadine’s brother, which serves as the film’s entire catalyst? It disappears from long stretches of the movie when Nadine cuts her friend off completely. Nadine’s fractious relationship with her mother? Not there when Nadine isn’t forced to care about it. The other characters have to make Nadine notice them for their stories to take center stage, and the audience remains focused on whatever Nadine wants in the given moment, which is usually to make out with the hot guy who works at the pet store.

The Half of It’s Ellie is a less caustic character than Nadine, so she’s less likely to just cut people off entirely. That makes her easier to root for, but it also means that when another character wanders in to the center of the story, she doesn’t do much to dislodge them. For as much as Ellie is this story’s protagonist, the one who’s actually driving most of the action forward is Paul (until it’s Trig, weirdly). Ellie is a protagonist defined by inaction — which makes sense for a small-town queer girl just trying to get to college, but which also means that in a movie so full of things happening, it’s too easy to lose sight of what the movie’s center is.

Most riffs on Cyrano focus on the central love triangle for this very reason — it’s such a potent idea for a story that you don’t need to add much to it. But boiling this down to the story of Ellie, Paul, and Aster, with a backdrop of small-town conservative Christianity, would have made the first two-thirds of the film feel more serious and weighty instead of light and breezy.

The choice to ever so slightly decentralize the love triangle was right for the first two-thirds of The Half of It, but it also ultimately sinks the movie when it’s abruptly forced to turn into a film where things actually happen. Ellie isn’t going to take over the story without being shoved to center stage. And the way the movie contrives to do that ultimately makes too little sense to register.

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