Lesbian filmmaker Alice Wu has a theory about romantic bravado: “I genuinely think we all regress to being like teens when it comes to having to ask somebody out.”
It’s part of the reason why Wu, who’s almost 50, wrote and directed a new film about teenagers. Her forthcoming Netflix original, The Half of It, stars Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu, a shy, bookish Chinese-American teen whose Cyrano de Bergerac–esque quest to help jock Paul (played by Daniel Diemer) woo popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire) ends in a mess of a love triangle. It’s partially an ode to Wu’s own adolescent self. As she recalls in her director’s notes, her first heartbreak came in the form of a “friend breakup” with her male high school BFF, whose girlfriend was threatened by the emotional intimacy they shared.
“I tend to write from a very emotional place,” Wu tells NewNowNext, “so in order to write this, I had to get back into touch with what it felt like to be that vulnerable high schooler.”
At first glance, The Half of It reads as a textbook rom-com: Ellie predictably falls for Aster’s eloquence and disarming earnestness, leaving a baffled Paul in her wake. But the complexities of Wu’s characters—Ellie’s loving defensiveness of her immigrant father, whose broken English hinders his career prospects in the U.S.; Paul’s genuine, if misunderstood, fondness for Ellie; Aster’s fraught relationship with religion as the daughter of a pastor—make for a movie that is as much about familial and platonic love as it is about the capital “L” kind.
We tend to obsess over romantic love, Wu says, but if there’s anything queer people do well, it’s cultivate “so many different kinds of love.”
“[With The Half of It], I was trying to talk about those other forms, all the different ways you can love, some of which are sexual, some of which are romantic, and some of which are platonic,” she says. “None are necessarily better than any other, but all of them have the capacities to help shape who we are and hopefully set us on the path to become the people we really want to be.”
That’s not to say The Half of It lacks that infatuation we’ve come to know and love from rom-coms. Wu’s film taps into the preciousness of teenage love—the nerves, the longing, the fragility of it all. She highlights a particularly charged scene in which Ellie and Aster are alone at a hot springs: “The yearning, the honesty between these two people who just really see each other—it’s another scene that just emotionally hit me.”
As an addition to the queer-cinema canon, The Half of It is quietly revolutionary. It is Wu’s second full-length feature, and her follow-up to Saving Face, the GLAAD Award–nominated lesbian dramedy she wrote and directed in 2005. Like The Half of It, Saving Face also follows a queer Chinese-American protagonist who speaks English and Mandarin; to this day, it is one of only a few LGBTQ films to do so.
“For me, obviously it’s about representation, but I truly believe those choices give the story resonance,” Wu says. “The more specific you are, the more textured the story is. Because on the surface, there’s only like 10 plots in the world. It’s all the same thing. So the question is, What are the characters, and how authentic can we make them feel?”
In the 15-year gap between Saving Face and The Half of It, Wu was largely detached from the film industry. She holds degrees in computer science from Stanford University, so making movies isn’t something she has to do to support herself; rather, it’s an outlet for Wu to pursue select projects that truly matter to her. It wasn’t until recently that she realized how groundbreaking Saving Face was. In 2005, Wu had to fight for a lesbian film with a “happy ending,” meaning her protagonist could have healthy, enduring relationships with her queer love interest and her family.
“That was weirdly a little bit controversial,” she recalls. “People would be like, ’Feels like it’s just too happy.’ The thing I really love is that now, years later, nobody ever thinks the ending is too happy. That tells me the world changed.”
“I am a stubborn filmmaker in that I have a very strong point of view,” Wu adds. “And I hold to it. It’s not that I think I’m right; it’s just that this is the thing I’m making. It’s just gotten a lot easier because I don’t have to spend a bunch of time explaining to people why the lead being Asian American and queer is important.”
The Half of It premieres May 1 on Netflix.
Main image: Lewis (L) and Daniel Diemer in The Half of It.