[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. What If opens today in limited release.]
Being a platonic friend sucks. It just does. No matter how much chemistry you have with a person, the relationship dynamic inevitably pushes you into a Hobson’s choice: take the less-than-ideal relationship you have or lose it entirely. There’s not much middle ground unless the platonic relationship finally becomes romantic, and that tends to be in the realm of wish fulfillment, especially when the one you want to be with is in a healthy relationship with someone else. What If takes on this familiar story, and while it does keep the wish fulfillment intact, director Michael Dowse obliterates the selfishness and single-sided nature of these stories to create a rich, full, and painfully funny ensemble piece that offers sweet sentiment with salty comedy.
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is still trying to get over breaking up with his girlfriend over a year ago, so he goes to a party with his friend Allan (Adam Driver), and ends up meeting and hitting it off with Allan’s cousin, Chantry (Zoe Kazan). Chantry and Wallace chat throughout the party, leave Allan getting hot and heavy with fellow partygoer Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), and just as they’re getting to Chantry’s house, she casually mentions her long-term boyfriend (Rafe Spall). The air goes out of Wallace’s sails, but the two end up running into each other again and begin a strong friendship, but Wallace’s romantic feelings for Chantry only grow stronger. Chantry also has her own dilemmas regarding her relationship with Ben and her job.
Dowse is already ahead of the game in how he sets up the plot of the movie. Usually, the story is told from the perspective of the reserved “nice guy” who just has to keep being nice, reveal his feelings at some point, and then wait until the bad boyfriend does something bad and sends the girl rushing into the nice guy’s arms. These stories tend to overlook that the girl should be an individual with her own life, hopes, and dreams. Dowse puts as much emphasis on Chantry’s problems as he does on Wallace, and not all of Chantry’s problems revolve around men. This approach makes the character much more compelling than some unreachable object that’s been placed on a pedestal by some lonely, frustrated guy.
Wallace may be lonely and frustrated, but he’s never pathetic and always funny. Radcliffe continues to impress as he absolutely nails the comedy by bringing a deadpan sarcasm that bounces perfectly off Kazan. The two actors have excellent comic timing, and their chemistry is rooted in the kind of inside jokes that any friends—platonic or romantic—will recognize. Even though all the lead actors possess the kind of quick wit everyone would like to have, the conversations in What If still feel natural.
This natural tone is essential to keeping the situation as relatable as possible, and avoiding anything saccharine or resentful. What If is actively conscious of not giving Wallace an easy out, and stressing that actually stealing Chantry away from Ben would make Wallace like his parents, who cheated on each other, and his cheating ex-girlfriend. Other films in this genre are too self-centered to even consider the morality of the platonic friend’s desire, and Dowse goes a step further by rooting those morals in the character’s backstory.
By placing so much emphasis on the characters and their relationships, the comedy just flows, and makes What If one of the funnier films I’ve seen this year. Those who enjoyed Dowse’s previous film, Goon, will likely enjoy What If even more as it expertly blends a warm, earnest attitude with absolutely filthy, irreverent jokes [Note: I'm not sure if this new cut is the same on I saw at TIFF since what's being released theatrically is PG-13]. Everyone in the cast is wonderful, and Driver is so good he almost makes me want to give Girls another chance. I won’t spoil any of the jokes, but I will say that they’re not only funny, but also memorable.
As much as Dowse improves on the platonic-friend genre and ditches its weaker aspects, he’s still in the genre, and sometimes trips into its more twee aspects. Chantry works as an animator, and Dowse occasionally likes to animate one of her drawings as a way to visualize some of the emotions, but it never really clicks since there’s nothing fanciful about the rest of the movie. Additionally, the music selections didn’t really work for me since they seem to soften aspects of the picture that are already pretty light.
These qualms aside, What If probably won’t make you feel better about being a platonic friend, but it won’t have you crying foul either. The story is more relatable because it’s specific as opposed to going broad and letting its sad and lonely audience members hop on the wish fulfillment ride. That wish fulfillment is still present in What If because the movie isn’t trying to break the mold as much as it’s pointing out how much better the mold can be when you have fully-formed characters, great performances, heartwarming emotions, and jokes about how many times you can eat your own feces.