Welcome to the third installment of our Pride Month series! Each day in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQ+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQ+ community and in mainstream media. A note: this article contains some spoilers for the film The Half of It, so if you are looking to avoid those, watch the film and then head back here!
Today’s spotlight shines on Ellie Chu, played by Leah Lewis, who is one-third of the unconventional love triangle at the heart of Netflix’s The Half of It. The film follows Ellie in a modern retelling of the classic story of Cyrano de Bergerac. In this version, Ellie is paid to write love letters from sweet, clueless jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) to his crush, the popular and kind Aster (Alexxis Lemire), in a bid to get her to like him. The only problem? Ellie also has a crush on Aster. But the story takes a different turn when Ellie and Paul start to become friends, and the film wonders: what if your other half doesn’t have to be a romantic partner? What if it’s finding a friend who understands you when no one else can or will?
Ellie is a character who stands out from the beginning. Though she is quiet in school, where other students only see her as useful when she writes their essays for them, Ellie has a complex inner world that we see revealed more and more over time. Ellie is smart and loves big ideas and old films. She’s dealing with adult problems like late bills since she is the better English speaker in her family, with her father stuck in a low paying job in rural Squahamish due to prejudice and tragedy. She also has to deal with bullies who focus on her ethnicity, and through Lewis’ performance you can feel the suffocating influences on her life taking away her joy. It seems romance is far from Ellie’s mind until she runs — literally — into Aster Flores.
It’s a meet-cute that feels quietly revolutionary. The scene is one we’ve witnessed a million times before in teen shows and movies, the classic “whoops I knocked into you, let me hand you your books slowly as our eyes lock and we both realize something has changed.” But in this instance, it awakens something different in Ellie. Aster comments on her taste in books, something her classmates would never notice or care about. When Ellie stumbles to introduce herself, Aster says she already knows who Ellie is, and you can see Ellie’s heart flood with anticipation. Maybe Aster is that mythical other half she’s dreamed of finding, someone in this small town who understands her.
But then Paul approaches Ellie with his offer to help him up his romance game and land the girl of his dreams, and Ellie makes the choice to help him out of economic necessity. She pours her heart and soul into her letters to Aster, so much so that when the gimmick works and Aster agrees to go on a date with Paul, Ellie has to give him a crash course in all the references and inside jokes “Paul” now has with Aster. They make a good team, and Paul frequently makes moves to indicate he wants to be friends with Ellie. But she’s closed off, unaccustomed to attention and not wanting to invite him into her life. As Paul slowly but surely earns her trust by defending her from bullies and Ellie begins to open up to him, they are both changed. Paul gains the confidence to pursue his dreams of perfecting his sausage recipe, and Ellie starts to realize she deserves to be happy, that she matters. It all comes to a head when Ellie has to perform at the senior talent show, and Paul encourages her to sing the song she’s written when her original plan fails. As Ellie plays her song to a quiet auditorium of kids who previously only knew her as the shy girl who wrote their essays for them, Paul looks on, beaming. The other students give her a standing ovation, showing Ellie that she is special and worthy of attention.
Watching Ellie blossom onscreen as a queer woman is particularly affecting, especially when she grows closer to Aster as a friend and it becomes clear Aster is trying to figure out her identity as well. Aster invites Ellie to go swimming with her, and the two talk about their aspirations. Ellie’s thoughts about the world move Aster to consider her own beliefs, making her question whether a quiet life in Squahamish is really what she wants. Watching Ellie grow more comfortable with her sexuality over the course of the film is one of its strongest plot lines — which is what makes it all the more devastating when she is forced to reckon with what it means to be queer in her town.
At first, the film makes a bigger deal out of Squahamish’s racial homogeneity than any prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community. But the subtle signs are there, with Aster’s father being an important deacon, Paul and Ellie’s use of the confession boxes at church to meet in secret, and Ellie’s side gig as the organist for Sunday services. When Paul has the sudden realization that Ellie likes Aster, he takes it badly at first. Raised in a religious household, he’s always heard that people who are gay are sinners who will go to hell. Paul distances himself from Ellie, who is hurt by his rejection after finally thinking she’d found a kindred spirit. It’s the first time in the film that Ellie’s queerness, rather than her ethnicity, sets her apart from those around her, and Paul’s rejection comes as a shock to the audience and Ellie.
But then Ellie finds her voice. When Aster’s traditional, safe boyfriend proposes to her in front of the congregation at Easter while Ellie watches from the organist’s bench, Ellie stands. She tries to tell Aster not to say yes, but her words fail her. Paul joins her, and while it seems like he’s talking to Aster, he’s really talking to Ellie. Paul has been doing research while he and Ellie weren’t speaking, trying to broaden his own perspective. Realizing the depth of the pain he has caused to someone he loves, Paul decides to let Ellie know how much she means to him. He says, “I never want to be the guy who stops loving someone for loving the way that they want to love.” Paul’s apology gives Ellie the courage to go on, and she tells Aster to aim for a bolder and deeper love by using phrases from her letters. Ellie also realizes that the friendship she and Paul have is a true soul connection, the one she’s been looking for all along. Aster is shocked that Ellie has been the one writing Paul’s letters and leaves, confused and unsure of her feelings for Ellie. Although this doesn’t lead to a classic “happily ever after” ending with Aster, it does lead to a new view of life for Ellie. She decides to go to college in Iowa and finally has the confidence to be her true self, kissing Aster goodbye before leaving and telling her she’ll “see her in a couple of years” when Aster is ready to embrace her own identity.
Ellie is a character who represents a number of perspectives on screen who are typically underrepresented, from Asian-Americans to immigrants to the LGBTQ+ community. She feels real in a way most leads in Netflix romcoms don’t. Your heart breaks for her, and you root for her to find her footing and realize how valuable she is, whether she gets the girl or not. Leah Lewis’ portrayal of Ellie is perfect, allowing Ellie to be complex and make mistakes while figuring out who she is. Ellie Chu is a groundbreaking character who deserves to be highlighted in our Pride spotlight series.
Be sure to check back here every day this month for more of our Pride spotlights!