Movies

Film Review: ‘What If’ Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan

What if I told you that there was yet another terrific indie rom-com in theaters now and that you should check it out, like, yesterday? And what if I told you that Daniel Radcliffe is completely endearing in it as the male lead? What if I told you that Adam Driver is also in it, and although still slightly douchey, is way more likeable than his character on HBO’s Girls? And finally, what if I told you that Zoe Kazan, as the female lead, is sweet and likeable and not at all cloying in the overly cutesy way that most female romantic movie characters tend to be written? Would you want to see that movie? You should.

Radcliffe plays Wallace, a somewhat reserved but wryly funny guy who is still quietly stinging from the ending of his most recent relationship (his girlfriend was cheating on him) who meets Chantry (Kazan) at his former college roommate Allan’s (Driver) house party. Yes, how they meet could be considered a “meet-cute” scenario: Wallace is arranging magnetic words on the fridge to form some very sorrowful observations about love and Chantry takes notice of his hobby and decides to participate in the mixing of words, making him lighten up a bit. They exchange some cute but slightly awkward conversation, both noting how neither feels comfortable making this type of small talk at parties, and then they go their separate ways in the apartment. At the end of the night he offers to walk her home since it’s the same way that he’s heading, and clearly Wallace thinks he’s seeing a silver lining to the gray cloud that’s been hanging over his head since his breakup. However, he soon learns that Chantry has a boyfriend, but that doesn’t deter him from taking her phone number and accepting her as a friend (in real life, the old-fashioned way). They even shake hands rather officially to seal the merger of this friendship.

At this point in the story, which is admittedly pretty early on, I was getting nervous that the film was going to just take pages out of the When Harry Met Sally or 500 Days of Summer playbooks and phone-in the rest of this non-love (but really love) story. I thought to myself “please don’t disappoint me, movie! Please be original and endearing, and don’t just follow the road more often traveled!” After all, I can watch those movies at home for free. Hell, I can recite dialogue from both of those movies without the aid of a DVD. Don’t make Chantry a whimsical sprite in frilly sailor suits, or be a difficult customer in a diner; don’t have Wallace break into a flash-mob dance, or sing bad Broadway karaoke at Sharper Image. Please don’t do any of these things.

I can happily report that although What If at times feels familiar in its overall plotline—which is of course the timeless tale of boy meets girl, boy can’t have girl, boy befriends girl in the hopes of her long-term relationship failing, boy quietly pines for girl, boy possibly makes a bold overture to finally reveal his true feelings for girl—it feels fresh and original in its execution.

Chantry has an amazing boyfriend, Ben, who works for the United Nations and can cook a killer meal and yet she’s spending so much of her fun free time with Wallace, who is quietly pining for her. And then Ben takes a U.N. assignment out of the country for a few months. Chantry is clearly relieved (as is Ben) to have a warm and endearing male friend around without all of the sexual tension. Wallace is clearly hiding all of that sexual tension quite well. Always too polite to act on his impulses, he confides his feelings to Allan, who also happens to be Chantry’s cousin. Allan is able to play devil’s advocate, though, and often suggests ways that Wallace should come clean about his feelings or just forget about his desires and move on.

Allan seems like the typical relationship-phobic guy, always with a new girlfriend by his side, but he winds up falling in love with his most recent one-night stand. Together, the new couple lend a fun comedic foil to Wallace and Chantry’s own unresolved non-couple.

Wallace and Chantry’s relationship goes on quite an emotional ride; I wouldn’t liken it to a roller coaster though, it’s more like a merry-go-round, where there are ups and downs, all the while circling around this one thing (that being Wallace’s hidden affection for Chantry). There are many sweet moments in the film, where Wallace secretly wrestles with just blurting out how he feels, all the while being a faithful companion to his new friend. In one scene she gets stuck inside a dress in a boutique’s dressing room and asks for his help to get her unstuck, while keeping his eyes closed the whole time so as to not see anything. They talk for hours in person, and continue the conversations on the phone from their homes until someone is about to fall asleep. When Chantry has a terrible day at work and wants to go out and get drunk, Wallace dutifully is her drinking buddy. The pair have a natural chemistry and as one character points out, Wallace is even like a male Chantry.

As they spend more time together it’s inevitable that they start growing closer (as friends). But Wallace starts to misconstrue much of what Chantry says or does (not as friends). And as the days that her boyfriend is away drag on, Chantry is starting to take a second look at Wallace (especially when her single and interested sister starts asking after him). There are a few points in the movie where Chantry does dip her toe into the unsure waters of “what if” (as in, what if I flirted a bit with Wallace, what if I let my guard down and rely on him like a boyfriend), and seems to briefly forget that she actually has a serious boyfriend.

In one scene in particular she and Wallace go skinny dipping at the beach at night with Allan and Nicole (his now-fiancée), and once out of the water she says to Wallace “I’ll look if you look.” But alas, Allan and his lady got out of the water ahead of them and stole their clothes, leaving a single sleeping bag and a dying fire to keep warm. And in that moment it seems like the film is going to go down in flames, that this is the moment that they realize their desire for one another and get into the sleeping bag, naked, together. But no. The exact opposite of all of those actions and emotions unfold, and although they share the sleeping bag, really all they do that night is sleep. And sleep angrily, I might add. Allan and Nicole return the next morning to collect one rueful Wallace and one extremely pissed off Chantry. Their amorous prank clearly did not go as planned.

Then comes the hurt feelings, confusion, and doubt, causing a natural fracture in their friendship. A large romantic overture on Wallace’s part does not exactly go as planned, and Chantry has to deal with real-world decisions concerning her career, living situation, and, in short, life. The film feels very real in its execution of the dynamics of a friendship, which is probably due in large part to the fact that the movie (which, by the way, was originally titled The F Word—”F” as in “friend”) was adapted from a play, Toothpaste and Cigars, by TJ Dawe.

So, can men and women just be friends (especially if they’re both single, or if only one of them is single)? Well, I won’t spoil how this movie answers that question, you should definitely go and see how it ends for yourself.

What If is rated PG-13.

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