THE HALF OF IT*CUT TO THE CHASE*
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Alex
In narration, high schooler Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) tells the audience how the ancient Greeks believed humans were originally born with two heads, four arms, and four legs – until the gods cleaved them into two, leaving mortals to wander the earth longing and searching for their other half. When the two halves of the same soul reunite, it would be the greatest joy. She notes that people spend too much time looking for love since life is ultimately irrational and meaningless. Ellie tells the audience that this isn’t a love story… or at least not the kind where anyone actually gets what they want.
Ellie lives in a small town called Squahamish. In school, Ellie makes money writing essays for other kids in the class in exchange for cash. Her teacher Mrs. Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker) lets it slide, joking she’d hate to have to read the essays those kids were really going to write. She gives Ellie an application for Grinnell College, but Ellie passes, saying that she has to go to the local college because she’s been offered a full scholarship there. Later, Ellie reluctantly signs up for the winter talent show, since it is mandatory for seniors.
While riding her bike home from school, she is approached by Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), who doesn’t want her to write an essay, but rather a love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie refuses, saying love letters are supposed to be personal and it would be wrong… but also because she too has noticed Aster and likes her, having accompanied her father, Deacon Flores (Enrique Murciano) during his church services. The two have talked a little, and both like movies and books. At home, Ellie watches movies with her dad Edwin (Collin Chou), and helps him pay the bills. When she finds some overdue, she agrees to write the letters for Paul at a higher price point.
Ellie reads Paul’s letter and thinks it’s a mess. He says it’s because she’s never been in love, which makes Ellie angry, but she writes the letter anyway, using a Wim Wenders quote. Aster writes back, noting that she knows Paul stole the quote. Ellie writes a response for Paul, where she mentions she sometimes hides behind other people’s words and speaks from the heart about how she feels about the world, and that if she knew what love was, she would quote herself. Aster writes back, opening up about how things can be hard for her too sometimes. Paul wants to text her immediately, but Ellie notes that if he does he will be like everyone else. She keeps writing letters, and Paul keeps paying.
Aster accidentally drops a letter on the floor, which Mrs. Geselchap finds and confronts Ellie about. Ellie insists she will stop, but she and Aster keep writing back and forth, opening up about their fears and dreams. When Aster opens up about how she loved painting but stopped, afraid of making bold strokes in her work and ruining what she’d already made. Ellie (as Paul) directs her to a wall where they take turns going and making paint strokes on it, eventually creating a beautiful painting of a girl reaching for a star. Paul is tired of waiting and texts Aster. Ellie tries to recover by switching to a ghost messenger, which Aster – bored hanging out with her vapid boyfriend Trig (Wolfgang Novogratz), messages them back on.
Paul finally goes on a date with Aster, and she gives him a book which she thought he’d like based on their conversations – “Remains of the Day”, a book she had seen Ellie reading in school. Ellie listens from outside as Paul struggles to find anything to say, leading to an incredibly awkward date. The next day, Ellie tells him he should give up with Aster since they have nothing in common. But when Paul defends her from some bullies, Ellie goes back to helping him, and begins teaching him about ‘abstract art and repressed British literature’, the things she liked to talk to Aster about. She teaches him about existentialism, has him watch Hepburn movies, and tries to teach him how to make conversation. They follow Aster and find out she loves horror movies, and interview Trip to find weaknesses.
Paul asks Ellie why she stays in Squahamish and she angrily explains that her father moved here from China with a Ph.D., but was discriminated against because of his accent and never made it beyond Squahamish. She asks him why he stays, and he explains he has to stay in the family’s sausage business or break his mother’s heart. He has an idea for a new cuisine called the taco sausage, but his family won’t try it. He’s tried writing food critics in bigger cities but hasn’t heard anything back.
Back at school, Mrs. Geselschap finds a letter Aster drops and confronts Ellie about spending her time on this but not filling out a Grinnell application. Ellie and Paul continue to get to know each other and bond, and Ellie asks Paul what he likes about Aster. He comes up with a not too wordy response, having trouble talking, and Ellie gives her own version of what she loves about Aster – Paul is upset because that’s a real answer of what love should be and he can’t come up with one. Ellie tells Paul that no one tries harder than he does, and that’s love too. For dinner, Paul cooks the taco sausage for Ellie and Edwin. They watch a movie where a man chases after a woman on a train as she watches from the window – Paul thinks its romantic… Ellie thinks it’s moronic. Ellie plays a song on her guitar.
Paul goes on a second date with Aster, but when he again has trouble being able to say anything, Ellie begins texting Aster as him, explaining she gets nervous about talking when Aster is around. Paul looks out the window at Ellie, incredulous, but Ellie handles it. Eventually, Paul stands up and tells Aster how much he likes her, to Ellie’s shock. Afterward, he’s on cloud nine – he tells Ellie that they kissed. Not only that, but he heard from a different food critic who wants to try his creation, he assumes the critic he reached out to must have contacted him. Ellie asks how he knew it was the right moment, and he explains sometimes a girl gives a look and you have to go for it.
At the school recital, Ellie begins to play the piano but the strings are bad, and the audience begins laughing. Paul tosses her a guitar and tells her to play her song, which she does, and the crowd likes it. Afterward, Paul takes Ellie to the afterparty where she gets drunk and throws up. He takes her back to his place and puts her to bed, and out of her bag falls letters she’s written to multiple food critics nearby about Paul’s food.
The next day Aster comes by Paul’s house to give him a painting, but is surprised to find Ellie, who explains that she and Aster are just friends. Aster goes with Ellie to the train station that she works at, then brings her to the watering hole where she starts skinny dipping – Ellie nervously looks away while she takes her clothes off, then gets in with her clothes on. Aster confesses she heard Trig telling her father he was going to propose, wondering if she should accept. She says God doesn’t know either, and Ellie tells her she doesn’t believe in god. Aster says she isn’t sure what she believes in, but she asked God for a sign and then got Paul’s letter.
Aster drops Ellie off at home, where Paul has made dinner for her and Edwin. Aster then talks to Paul, who kisses her and invites her to his football game. She accepts. At the game, Ellie watches and encourages Paul as he makes the only touchdown for their notoriously bad team. After the game, he finds Ellie and goes in for a kiss, shocking her. Aster sees and leaves, hurt, and Ellie is so upset that Paul realizes she’s in love with Aster. He calls it a sin and leaves, disgusted.
When she gets home, Ellie finds Trig waiting for her, and he claims she’s in love with him. Ellie, exhausted, says sure, and then Edwin fends him off with a spray of a hose. Paul googles “how do you know you’re gay”, which his mother later discovers. When Paul drops off sausage for Edwin, he asks Paul if they broke up, and Paul explains they weren’t dating. Edwin tells Paul she seems sad. Paul tells Edwin he doesn’t see her, and Edwin tells Paul (in Mandarin) how after his wife died and Ellie supported him when he couldn’t go on. In English, he asks Paul if he’s ever loved someone so much he wouldn’t change anything about them.
The whole town is at church when Trig proposes to Aster, who says yes. Ellie stands up and shouts no. Then Paul stands up and says that love isn’t pretending and that no one should have to pretend, and he’s realized how hard it would have to be to pretend your whole life. He says he doesn’t want to be someone who would stop loving someone else because of how they love (an apology to Ellie). Ellie admits she has been pretending, and tells everyone that love is not patient or kind, but rather is horrible, selfish, and bold. She says it isn’t about finding your perfect half, it’s about trying and failing. She says it’s about being able to ruin your good painting and make it a great painting – which makes Aster realize that she’s been exchanging letters with Ellie all along. Aster slaps Paul and leaves, upset. Paul’s mother tells him she loves him even if he’s gay – he explains he’s not but does want to change the sausage recipe, which infuriates her.
At home, Edwin encourages Ellie to go to Grinnell, wanting her not to be like him, stuck in Squahamish. Eventually, Ellie does decide to go to Grinnell, and right before leaving she goes to see Aster, who has made a portfolio to go to art school – to apologize. Aster brushes her off, but then admits that deep down she probably knew – Ellie didn’t use enough emojis to be Paul. She tells Ellie that for what it’s worth, it’s not like the thought never crossed her mind, and that maybe if things were different… Ellie teases her about not being sure once again, and Aster says maybe in a few years she’ll be sure. She tells Ellie to find something to believe in, in Iowa, and Ellie leaves… but then rushes back and kisses Aster, and tells her she’ll see her in a few years.
Ellie prepares to leave for good. Paul promises to take care of Edwin – his food business has gotten successful thanks to Ellie’s help. Paul says goodbye to her at the train, and she teases him not to cry. Once on the train, she looks scared, but when the train leaves, Paul chases after it, joyously yelling to Ellie through the window just like the movie they watched. Ellie is delighted, and looks forward, toward the future.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives in a small, conservative town called Squahamish, where she helps support her dad by charging to write essays for other students. Paul (Daniel Diemer) asks her to write love letters for him to his crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), and Ellie agrees. Through corresponding with Aster, Ellie begins falling for her, even though Paul is the one who's getting the rewards. Eventually, Paul develops feelings for Ellie, but when he tries to kiss her, Aster sees and is upset. Paul realizes Ellie really has a crush on Aster, and rejects her, calling her a sinner.
Aster's boyfriend Trig proposes to her at church in front of the whole town, and Ellie objects. Paul stands up as well, saying no one no should pretend, and he realizes he would never stop loving someone because of who they love (apologizing to Ellie). Aster realizes that it was Ellie she was writing with and is extremely upset.
Ellie gets ready to leave town for Grinnell College and apologizes to Aster, who admits that she suspected, and isn't sure how she feels. Ellie kisses her and tells her she'll see her in a few years. Paul says goodbye to Ellie as she gets on the train, and chases after it like a scene in a movie they watched together.