The textual chemistry of young love

Alice Wu’s 'The Half of It' (on Netflix) is that rare film in which words marry technology, which puts the text back in texting: Messages read like compressed letters, while cellphones feel like motorised papers

May 22, 2020 10:05 pm | Updated May 23, 2020 12:45 pm IST

A still from The Half of It

A still from The Half of It

We occupy a world where words have become the opposite of technology. When I read a long essay or a thoughtful book, I subconsciously attribute an oldness to the author. Like charming remnants of a bygone era, there’s something impossibly experienced about writing. But technology is a young beast. It turns ancient nouns into modern verbs – you “text” someone, you don’t write a text to them. You message someone, you don’t compose a message to them.

Cinema has invariably punctuated this clash of communication. Love is traditionally a long-form feeling. Serious characters in dire situations write letters or, at worst, eloquent emails to each other. They accidentally discover one another through a medium of writing, before discovering one another through writing. The Lunchbox ’s middle-aged widower Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) and housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) trade thoughts through handwritten notes because fortuitous words were their first point of contact. You’ve Got Mail ’s Joe (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen (Meg Ryan) exchange emails because of their chance correspondence in an over-30s chatroom. The Lake House ’s Alex (Keanu Reeves) and Kate (Sandra Bullock) exchange letters because they exist across two separate time periods. These couples thrive on connecting intellectually to connect emotionally. Their souls meet for their hearts to beat.

A whole new lingo

But even they would tut-tut at the sight of red-blooded kids typing on their cellphone screens. Texting, for an entire generation of old-school idealists, is not the language of longing – it’s the bastardization of personal expression. This is also because the movies, as a whole, have often condescended on the shorthand of new-age interaction. Just like travel is used for visual gratification, social media is used as a flimsy cosmetic device; emojis and web slang are tonal rather than narrative tools.

But Alice Wu’s The Half of It (on Netflix) is that rare film in which words marry technology. It puts the text back in texting: Messages read like compressed letters, while cellphones feel like motorised papers. On the face of it, The Half of It has a crowd-pleasing premise: A closeted Chinese-American student (Leah Lewis, as Ellie) is hired by an inarticulate jock (Daniel Diemer, as Paul) to write love letters for him to the popular girl (Alexxis Lemire, as Aster). Ellie gets carried away; letters soon turn into late-night texts. Geeky Ellie finds a kindred spirit – a mind of melancholy and culture and loaded ellipsis – in pretty Aster, who in turn thinks she has located the literature behind Paul’s empty gaze.

Despite the girls’ tender age, there’s a charming antiquity about their textual chemistry. They speak like highschoolers, but write like artists freed from the shackles of social etiquette. They simultaneously hide behind and reveal themselves through their chats. For once, a distant romance is allowed to wear the wisdom of a digital emotion. The characters may be misfits whose art of differentness is inextricably linked to loneliness, but they prefer the slow-burning subtext of the written word even in the presence of human company. A memorable scene features an awkward date between Aster and Paul being rescued by an impromptu texting session under the table. Aster feels surer once she reads Paul’s (but actually Ellie’s) messages, perhaps bemused by the fact that the boldness of their heads – aided by safeness of technology – is stimulating each other more than their bodies. The Half of It is so gracious about the grammar of the young gaze that Ellie’s sexuality becomes a footnote. One suspects that even if she wasn’t a queer immigrant in a conservative American town, Ellie might have still pursued intimacy in the stealth of automated darkness.

Taking refuge

At one point, Aster confides in Ellie that Paul makes her feel safe in person, but his texts are bold. The dissonance of his “personality” is confusing. In many ways, I resonate with the duality of the plot’s central conceit. Owing to my social anxiety, every relationship of my adult life has started with carefully constructed words that lead to the future. A relationship has two versions of me. The online version – playing out over ponderous texts and instant messaging, a faceless equation infused with the naked courage of two strangers on a liferaft. Thinking is an integral part of liking. Consequently, falling in love feels less like a leap of faith and more like a wobbly parachute of fate. We share music, opinions, secrets, tiny pieces of ourselves to see if they fit. This version is what I wish to be in person. (Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi literalised this duality).

Then there’s the offline version – playing out face to face, or on the phone, once the intrigue of words wears off. This is the spellbreaking reality, the clumsy part initially concealed through the confidence of writing. It’s jarring, resulting in a sort of sibling-like affection to overcompensate for the daring side. The passion melts away. Life gets diluted by the film we envisioned in our head. Perhaps that’s why Saajan resisted meeting Ila, and Ellie left in a train after kissing Aster. Maybe they knew all along. If words form their story, only the written ‘half of it’ is love.

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