There’s a subplot in Half Magic that finds Heather Graham’s character, Honey, working on a screenplay for a movie about “empowered sluts” only to be repeatedly ridiculed by her boss, cinematic megastar Peter Brock (Chris D’Elia). Serving as a stand in for all that is currently wrong with Hollywood, Brock is, in every way, deplorable. He calls her idea idiotic throughout the movie, demeaning her skills because she’s a woman—at several points telling her that no one can take her seriously because of her large breasts—and telling her over and over again that her script is inherently idiotic. No one wants to watch a movie about “empowered sluts,” he says, calling her failure over and over again.
Graham, who wrote and directed Half Magic, clearly intends for this to be seen as a meta-commentary on her struggles as a woman in Hollywood and getting Half Magic (a film about women finding strength and empowerment through their sexuality) made. But well-intentioned the film may be, it plays out like an ambitious student film from a filmmaker who hasn’t quite found her voice. Half Magic has a lot to say on the issue of female empowerment, and it certainly has the DNA for a brilliant, discussion-worthy project. Its lack of subtlety however reduces the film and its message to trite formula, hindering what might have been an important and empowering work.
The core of the film finds Graham’s Honey starting a new friendship with Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) and Eva (Angela Kinsey). Each woman suffers from her own neurosis brought about by the societal expectations on women and have issues with life, love, and self-worth. The three begin the process of learning to love themselves while finding empowerment in their sexuality and femininity.
A sound premise, to be sure. We need more movies for, about, and by women, especially in today’s climate. And I’ll admit that there was something innately gratifying about seeing women find the courage to say that they loved themselves or that they “love [their] pussy,” and coming to an understanding about what makes a great partner in both life and sex. For all its great ideas, however, Half Magic never manages to get itself off of the ground.
Ultimately it comes down to problems with the script. As it exists, Half Magic serves as wish fulfillment more than deep exploration. Wish fulfillment is all well and good, especially considering how little the wishes and wants of women have been addressed by Hollywood, but handled in the trite way that Half Magic handles it, it makes for a frustrating experience. Much of the script is spent telling us what is happening rather than allowing us to come to the conclusions it wants us to make. It almost feels pandering, as if it doesn’t trust us to follow the path it’s laying out and instead endeavors to hold firmly to our hand as it leads us itself.
There is something to be said for the fact that Graham is attempting to blaze a new path here. Though mired in something of a rom-com formula, Half Magic does, at least, attempt to say and do something new, and that is admirable, to a point. There are scenes and moments of dialogue that address issues that have never been addressed in movies before—things like Honey having issues with sex thanks to the sex-negative talks from her father and priest as a child, or the trio discussing the benefits and virtues of receiving oral sex. On the one hand, it’s great to see that in a movie. On the other, it’s handled so ham-fistedly that it almost belies the entire point.
It’s impossible to discuss any of this without acknowledging how hard Graham has had to fight in order to gain any headway in her career. She is a brilliant performer who has been unfairly hindered and held back at multiple points along her road. This is the kind of movie that can only come from a place of personal struggle, and I can’t, as I stated above, simply state that Graham “hasn’t yet found her voice” without also acknowledging that Graham, until now, hasn’t been allowed the opportunity to do so.
Her ability as a director is certainly on par with where the big time directors of today were when they were making smaller films in the 90s. This, of course, brings up the point that a movie like this would not have been made in the 90s, leading us to the question of whether the genre of women-loving-themselves-and-their-pussy hasn’t been stunted by a Hollywood system that overvalues and outweighs the voices of men over women. If this template had been solidified in, say, 1995, or even earlier, would we not already have a handful of genre classics to work with? What might Graham be doing today if this opportunity had been allowed 20 years ago?
That goes a long way towards explaining why Half Magic is neither the movie it wants nor needs to be. Graham, however, clearly has something to say, and it’s something important. Even if I can’t recommend the film, I also can’t deny that I am absolutely intrigued and excited by the path she’s currently on. At it’s heart, this is a film about the power of setting intentions. If she’s done nothing else here, she’s certainly done that. Half Magic may be muddled, but if this is the direction she intends to go down, we might soon see exactly what she’s capable of, and that might just be completely magic.
Half Magic is now playing in limited release.