The Half of It: A Modern Symposium on Love

How Plato's The Symposium encapsulates Alice Wu's exploration of love
Alice Wu’s The Half of It

Warning: contains spoilers

When Netflix released Alice Wu’s The Half of It on May 1st, hype circulated over the protagonist’s intersectional identity. Asian and lesbian, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) shows us the challenges of being closeted and Chinese in a white and conservative town named Squahamish (fictional).

Beneath its high school rom-com tropes, The Half of It is a thoughtfully written exploration of love and its various definitions. The film sets a philosophical tone with an opening quote from Plato’s The Symposium:

“Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole”

A foundational work of Western thought, The Symposium features six speeches from wisemen who proclaim their definitions of love at an Ancient Athenian cocktail party. The quote above—taken from Aristophanes’s speech—leads us to believe that the film defines love as looking for one’s other half.

Depiction of Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach

Dig a little deeper, however, and one finds that elements of the film actually reflect all six of the wisemen’s definitions of love:

  1. Phaedrus: love brings about virtue and courage
  2. Pausanias: common love is of the body, and heavenly love is of the mind
  3. Eryximachus: apply love with modesty, and it shall bring harmony to chaos
  4. Aristophanes: love is the pursuit of one’s lost, original half
  5. Agathon: love is that which is beautiful
  6. Socrates: love is the endless pursuit of all that is good and beautiful

Perhaps surprising to many modern readers, The Symposium extensively discusses homoerotic/homosexual love between men, which was accepted and even encouraged during this time. By invoking Plato’s work in a story about female, homosexual love, Alice Wu delivers thematic discourse that both compares with and contrasts against The Symposium’s themes. It is only by examining the film through this analytical lens that one can fully appreciate its intellectual depth.

Speech of Phaedrus

“Besides, it is only lovers who are willing to die for someone else”

In the story’s first speech, Phaedrus praises love’s ability to promote virtues in human beings. He focuses on effort, courage, and self-sacrifice, arguing that only lovers are willing to go as far as dying for someone else.

This definition reminds us of Paul (Daniel Diemer), who pays Ellie to write letters to the girl they both love. He is unable to express his feelings in words, but he demonstrates it in his perseverance: Ellie reassures Paul at one point that she has hardly ever met a person who tries harder than Paul to prove his love. More platonically, his love for Ellie also gives him courage to fight against the discrimination she endures—he is the first to speak out against jokes like “Chugga chugga chu chu,” and he is the first to openly ally with Ellie’s homosexuality.

Cheered on by Paul, Ellie finds her courage

Love also proves to be the root of courage when Ellie performs at the talent show. Although she plays accompaniment for the school and church choirs, Ellie’s musicianship has remained a mere side-act throughout her life. This position may sound familiar to many Asian-Americans—our upbringing instills in us a sense of modesty that discourages stepping into the spotlight.

When Ellie’s performance of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata starts off with heckles and mishaps, Paul’s encouragement and the love they share as friends helps her find courage. She takes center stage and performs a heartfelt, original song on acoustic guitar, commanding the spotlight and winning over the audience.

Speech of Pausanias

“Common Love is…the kind of love that inferior people feel. People like this are attracted to women as much as boys, and to bodies rather minds…The other love derives from the Heavenly…those inspired with this love are drawn towards the male, feeling affection for what is naturally more vigorous and intelligent”

Pausanias defines love by contrasting Common and Heavenly Love—the former being of the body while the latter is of the mind. He claims that Common Love is directed at immature boys (too young to possess virtue and wisdom) and women (whom he assumes to categorically possess less virtue and wisdom).

The film borrows these definitions of Common and Heavenly love in its juxtaposition of Paul and Ellie’s differing attractions to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Paul likes her because “she’s pretty.” In comparison, Ellie adores Aster’s love for literature and intellectual discourse. By better appreciating Aster’s intellect, Ellie displays Heavenly Love while also serving as a foil to Pausanias’s assumption that women are less capable of intellectual attraction.

Poetic texting between two smart ladies

The brilliance of Aster and Ellie disproves Pausanias’s claim that men are “naturally more vigorous and intelligent.” Heavenly Love in The Symposium exists only between two adult men. By invoking this definition only to subvert it, The Half of It challenges conventional—and incorrect—attitudes toward women.

Speech of Eryximachus

“When this type of love is applied, it must be with caution, to ensure that the recipient enjoys the pleasure it provides without being made self-indulgent.”

The third speech features Eryximachus, a doctor, proclaiming that love must be applied with modesty and restraint in order to bring harmony to opposing forces. Ellie mirrors this philosophy in her attitude towards texting: practice restraint, wait for her to text back, build up anticipation, and take it slow.

It also manifests in Ellie using ping pong to teach Paul how to hold a conversation: although the two players stand in opposition, one must return the ball with gentle force that matches that of the other player. The goal is to hold a consistent rally, not to slam the ball to score an ace. Eryximachus claims that love functions like applying medicine to the “well-ordered body,” bringing harmony when applied in modest amounts. Ellie approaches dating with similar modesty and restraint.

Amusingly, Eryximachus finds himself ridiculed in The Symposium: Aristophanes points out the questionable rationale behind applying medicinal concepts to an exercise in defining love. Although Eryximachus is well versed in medicine, he is humbly reminded that his approach does not apply to all scenarios and contexts.

Likewise, Ellie’s reserved approach to love doesn’t always succeed. When Paul tells Ellie about kissing Aster, he teaches her a lesson in seizing the moment and acting on one’s instinct. Ellie later follows his advice, and we understand the triumph of this moment—she has learned the value of occasionally going for the ace.

I kissed a girl, and I liked it

Speech of Aristophanes

“Under present circumstances what comes closest to it must be the best: that is to find a loved one who naturally fits your own character”

Aristophanes, whose speech features the opening quote in The Half of It, describes humans as once having four legs, four arms, a single head with two faces, and two sets of genitalia. Those with two sets of female genitalia were completely female, those with two sets of male genitalia were completely male, and those with one set of each were androgynous. When Zeus split humans in two to weaken them, their split bodies longed to reunite with the halves they lost. Love, then, is the desire and pursuit of finding our long-lost halves—of becoming whole.

The Half of It seems to champion mainly this attitude toward love. During their excursion in to the woods, Aster and Ellie share a beautiful moment savoring the lush guitar riffs of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.” As they float together, eyes skyward, we are inclined to see them as two halves of a whole, finally reunited.

Two halves of a whole, but which ‘whole’?

Aristophanes, however, argues that finding your true half is unlikely and or even impossible, and our best approximation is to find a person of similar nature. This concept of “like attracts like” forms the foundation for Ellie and Aster’s shared intellectual chemistry, but perhaps their bond merely approximates the true destination on the path to understanding themselves. As they float there, it is their own reflections in the water that most closely depict the image of the “original whole” as told by Aristophanes. The greatest impact of their attraction is not in bringing them together, but allowing both Ellie and Aster to see that there is so much more to themselves than wasting away their talents in Squahamish.

Speech of Agathon

“Love is himself supreme in beauty and excellence”

Agathon proclaims that love is that which is beautiful, and the other wisemen note that he is a beautiful man whose words serve to subliminally praise himself. His speech is dripping with narcissism, as he is too preoccupied with his own beauty to contribute productively to the discourse.

Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz) may as well be Agathon reborn in Squahamish. As the stereotypical jock with the pretty girlfriend, Trig lives as a self-consumed symbol of mediocrity. His family possesses wealth, he possesses good looks, and he keeps Aster around as a trophy girlfriend to accessorize his mundane conquests.  

Look, honey, at how mundane I am!

In The Symposium, Socrates hilariously cross-examines Agathon until he concedes that his definition of love is full of nonsense. The film mirrors this exchange, too, when Ellie savagely interrupts Trig and exposes the fact that she writes all of his essays for him. While Trig’s speech starts with “Love is patient, love is kind,” Ellie tells him politely that she’s “just going to rewrite [him] one last time.” As she starts her own speech with “Love isn’t patient or kind,” she directly emulates the manner in which Socrates repurposes Agathon’s speech to build the foundation for his own.

Speech of Socrates

“Like someone using a staircase, he should go from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from practices to beautiful forms of learning.
From forms of learning, he should end up at that form of learning which is of nothing other than that beauty itself, so that he can complete the process of learning what beauty really is.”

Socrates presents the most abstract view of love: rather than being beauty, love is the never-ending pursuit to find beauty. This pursuit has multiple phases (beautiful body, then beautiful practices, then beautiful learning), and there is a generalization process that happens within each phase (i.e. seeing beauty in one body, then generalizing beauty to all bodies). Although this definition far transcends the practice of love between two individuals, it perhaps most fundamentally captures the nature of Ellie’s development.

More foundational to Ellie’s character than her love for Aster is her loneliness. She resembles a fish out of water in mediocre Sahammish, and although her teacher urges her to attend a prestigious liberal arts school like Grinnell College, Ellie insists on the local school where she has a full-ride scholarship. Aster feels similarly trapped and dissatisfied—she will probably marry Trig Carson and lead a peaceful but boring life in Squahamish.

In their discussion about great artwork, Ellie and Aster conclude that it is the boldness of merely five strokes that can transform a good painting into a great one. For both of them, the good painting represents their current life trajectory: Ellie can take care of her father and support him financially, and Aster can live comfortably with a wealthy man like Trig as her husband. But by spending time together, learning each others’ minds, and tasting the feeling of being understood by someone else, these girls recognize their need to take bolder strokes in life.

“Love is messy, and horrible, and selfish, and bold. Love is being willing to ruin your good painting for a chance at a great one.” - Ellie
The difference is just five bold strokes

Socrates states that love culminates in understanding the objective truth of beauty. In The Half of It, the film resolves with Ellie and Aster acting upon their newfound understanding of how beauty is created—on both a physical canvas and the metaphorical canvas of life. Aster has decided to reject Trig and apply to art school, while Ellie has decided to attend Grinnell College.

Ellie’s decision especially mirrors Socrates’s definition in that she first recognizes the beauty of intellect in a single person (Aster), and she then generalizes that beauty to those she will potentially meet at an esteemed school like Grinnell. It is through love that she identifies her need of that beauty, and it is through love that she identifies the path on which to pursue it.

As Ellie says, love is “not finding your perfect half. It’s trying, reaching, and failing.” Although none of the characters end up together, we are left with hope that Ellie, Paul, and Aster will seize the future and pursue greatness over mediocrity. They tried, they reached, and perhaps they failed, but they have also become bold. Just as Casablanca closes with “the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” The Half of It ends with a new beginning for each of our three friends.

Ellie and her father watch "Casablanca"

In The Symposium's climactic speech, to love is to seize every moment to self-improve, and every moment divides time into the two halves of past and future. Alice Wu reminds us that, even though love often doesn’t work out, we should look to the future with courage and hope—confident in our understanding that the past was just…

The Half of It.