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TV/Film Culture cheat sheet: “Never Have I Ever,” “The Half of It,” and more

May. 5, 2020
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Binge: Never Have I Ever Season 1

When Mindy Kaling posted an open call for South Asian-American teenagers for her then-unnamed Netflix show, half my Twitter timeline wanted to audition. Roles for Desi actresses are already so elusive, even more so if you’re a newcomer. Not even a year later the show arrived on Netflix homepages as Never Have I Ever, a coming-of-age story about a first-generation Indian-American teenager, chopped perfectly into ten binge-able episodes.  

At its center is Devi Vishwakumar (played by the innately charming Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who has this show as her first acting credit), who, in an effort to redeem herself from a terrible freshman year, tries to get boyfriends for herself and her friends; the three of them collectively known as the UN (short for “Unfuckable Nerds,” because, you know, high school). 

There’s no shortage of documentation on teens’ first forays into sex; especially through the lens of the socially awkward, who are as immensely puzzled by the act as they are enticed. At first glance, Never Have I Ever is no different—the title an innuendo in itself and an indication of the protagonist’s sexual inexperience. But as early as the pilot it’s revealed that while this show is indeed about sex (or the lack of it), cute boys on the swim team, high-school popularity, and strict, overbearing parents who just don’t understand, it’s also about grief, sexuality, family, and identity. It manages to tackle themes on both ends of the spectrum without being overbearing, or touching upon them just to say they’ve been touched upon as if fulfilling a diversity checklist. 

In fact, it brilliantly captures the way seemingly shallow things and deeper trauma coexist in teenhood. This show is ultimately about grief, with Devi using sex and romance as a distraction, as something else to work toward. The ensemble of teens—Devi’s friends Eleanor (Ramona Young, who I was delighted to find out played Sam’s whimsical crush in Blockers) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), and even her nemesis Ben (Jaren Lewison)—all process emotions too big for them through the only experiences they know: sex, parties, relationships, and popularity. 

I like to think the season had a rocky start, but perhaps that’s just a testament to how close it hit home—I cringed at Devi’s every choice, with her emboldened by a desperation for a distraction. I cringed at the fact that had I gone to a slightly bigger school I would’ve also done what she did. While the episodes are fairly delightful to watch (I don’t know anyone who didn’t devour it in one sitting), the finale easily contains the show’s best moments. There are already many things the show gets right, but its depiction of Devi’s relationship with her mother—the two of them unable to penetrate the disparity in their cultures—is spot-on. Also, to all you South-Asian girls with hairy arms (like me!), I love you. 

Never Have I Ever is available to stream on Netflix.

Watch: The Half of It (2020, dir. Alice Wu)

There’s only so much you can do to reinvent famous tropes, especially ones centuries old. But if you think you’ve had enough Cyrano de Bergerac to last a lifetime, I implore you to let The Half of It be the last retelling you see, because honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to get better than this.

Subdued, straight-A student Ellie Chu (the fantastic Leah Lewis), while not generally well-liked in her mostly white small town, is well-needed, having revolutionized the local industry of writing essays for less eloquent classmates. The homely jock Paul (Daniel Diemer, who I kept having to remind myself was not Will Poulter), knowing Ellie’s line of work, tasks her to rewrite a love letter for one Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie, of course, harbors a crush on the same girl. But while the fictional town of Squahamish, Washington isn’t as vibrant as one is used to from teen films, The Half of It has the makings of an instant cult classic, choosing among well-loved high-school tropes and anchoring them to the film’s fully-realized emotional core. 

This nuance is thanks to the brilliant characterization of Ellie. She reminds me a bit of Normal People’s Marianne, both of them longing for belongingness and feeling like their life is happening somewhere else. It’s only when they find someone else who understands that they are grounded in reality—“Do you know what it feels like to find someone your age who gets you?” Ellie asks. She and Aster have been corresponding about abstract art and French philosophers, a connection she can’t quite teach Paul. And while Ellie is happy to hide in a car all night to help her friend ace his dates with Aster, she leaves when the two hit it off. Edmond Rostand wishes his 1897 play did pining as harrowingly as this.

Aster isn’t really that much of a character, maybe because not a lot of time is spent on her outside of her letters to Paul/Ellie. The real highlight was Ellie’s friendship with Paul—as people on Twitter have pointed out, “There is truly no friendship more powerful than that of a lesbian and her emotional support himbo.”

Ellie’s relationship with her father is thoughtfully written. Director Alice Wu shared that both her and her parents are conflict-averse, and like many other Asian families, Ellie’s and her father’s love language is almost exclusively nonverbal. We see it with the making of too many dumplings, and we see Ellie express this same love with Paul—quietly taking care of him, taking a while to open up but always intently listening.

Ellie is easily one of the fictional teenage girls I keep near and dear to my heart (alongside Maeve Wiley and Kat Stratford; if you’re sensing a pattern, be quiet). Throughout the movie we see her unmask, becoming more vulnerable. In the first frame she has her back to the camera, typing with laser focus; a testament to her hard exterior. In the last shot she’s facing forward with tears in her eyes, her guard chipped away, free. 

While the ending is perhaps too ambiguous to be satisfying, it’s emotionally true for the characters. “Even though this might seem like a tiny story about these three kids in this tiny town, this is the human condition. And I wanted to end in this feeling of hope. Everyone could get to the place Ellie gets to,” Wu told Collider. “The end of the movie is really the beginning, right?”

The Half of It is streaming on Netflix.

Listen: “Savage Remix” by Megan Thee Stallion ft. Beyoncé

Even if the quarantine hasn’t driven you to download TikTok, its sheer virality guarantees you’re familiar with Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” While I typically roll my eyes at people who hate fun and declare that the app has ruined so many great songs (let the people dance in front of their phones, man), I would kill to know what these people think of the freshly released remix featuring Megan’s fellow Houstonian, Beyoncé. While most collaborations of this nature tend to feature just an additional rap verse, this offering is more indulgent and imaginative. (The “okay” in the chorus is pure earworm.) News of the two working together had been afloat for a while after they met at a New Year’s Eve party, and hearing them rap side-by-side made the wait very worth it. All proceeds of the song go to Bread of Life’s Coronavirus relief efforts.

Listen to “Savage Remix” by Megan Thee Stallion ft. Beyoncé on Spotify here