Director: Michael Dowse
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe; Zoe Kazan; Adam Driver; Mackenzie Davis; Megan Park.
Plot: Wallace, who is burned out from a string of failed relationships, forms an instant bond with Chantry, who lives with her longtime boyfriend. Together, they puzzle out what it means if your best friend is also the love of your life.
Director Michael Dowse’s Canadian independent What If, set in Toronto, is a rather excellent representative of the post-romcom era that we seem to be a part of right now. This film, as well as a whole bunch of others circulating in the contemporary market, attempts to throw the traditional rules of the rom-com out of the window in an effort to re-imagine one of the oldest tricks in the book and avoid the “rom-com curse”. Does it succeed? Read on and I’ll try and unravel that for you.
What If concentrates on the developing friendship of its two central characters Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan), and subsequently tackles the issues surrounding falling in love with an unsuitable match. Wallace is an out of luck college drop-out who’s listening to an apologetic message from someone we understand to be his ex for the three hundredth and something time when we first join this movie. When he deletes it, a series of events unravel that bring him together with Chantry and raise questions regarding the selfishness of his want for more with a woman who’s already in a long-term relationship. I know that this central plot may not seem quite so genre-busting as I explained earlier, but that’s the point; of course it’s not. This picture, like the many that I class in the same category – Ruby Sparks (another Zoe Kazan film) being one – are still rom-coms underneath the creativity that defines them. They’re still about the pursuit of love and the happy ending, they just try to get there through less conventional methods through using tropes of dramas and melodramas instead.
What’s surprising from the way the story is set up in What If, is that we are invited to sympathise a lot more with Kazan’s character as the picture goes on and we hook on to her personal journey as a result of this, despite Radcliffe being the star and his character’s development being the over-arching story of the movie. We come to empathise with her situation as she wishes to be continue being happy in her original relationship while maintaining friend-only boundaries with the new man in her life. That’s not to say that she’s presented as a manic pixie dream girl, because that’s not the case at all. The way Michael Dowse and Zoe Kazan have worked to present her character has ensured that she is equally flawed and equally human, and therefore far removed from the one dimensional dream girl of Radcliffe’s characters’ aspirations. It was refreshing to see and really helped to develop the sort of attachment that’s needed for a usual rom-com to succeed. That’s not to say that the rest of the characters are particularly well written, because that’s certainly not the case. Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis play an “at it like rabbits” and “move at 100 miles per hour” couple that seem to exist only to juxtapose the central characters’ relationship, while Chantry’s long-term partner (played by Rafe Spall), is almost a caricature of an ignorant North American and over-protective boyfriend figure who is impossible to route for – that’s not to mention Megan Park’s stereotypical “desperate sister” role which seemed to exist only to provide a possible stumbling block for the protagonist with regard to his loyalty to his love interest. That’s not to say the film was poorly acted though. In fact, I’d say it was well acted.
Daniel Radcliffe played his role particularly well. The former Harry Potter star was sarcastic yet charming, a mix that can be tough to pull off. His exchanges with Adam Driver were well-played by each of them, and Radcliffe’s almost melancholic tone only helped to reinforce his likability (and that’s coming from someone who didn’t care much for him before this film). Zoe Kazan was, as always, fantastic. She’s quickly becoming one of my favourite artists, and with good reason. She’s a writer and producer, as well as an actress, and after seeing her in a bunch of other well put together indy films, it was good to see her starring in this one. She was adorable yet strong. She was a lover, yet she was ambitious. It is so often the case that a lead female in a rom-com, dramady, or romance film, can be restricted to only being one of those things, but she wasn’t in this film and that’s partly to do with the writers and partly to do with how well Kazan played the role. Sure, it was good to see Adam Driver, and Daniel Radcliffe was really good, but Kazan was the star. She’s definitely one to keep your eye on!
Overall, Michael Dowse’s What If was charming, different, well performed and a genuinely fun watch. As far as rom-coms go, it was one of the better ones (especially in recent years), and shouldn’t be overlooked by fans of the genre. Sure, the secondary characters left a bit to be desired, but I don’t think anyone goes into a rom-com looking for awesome character development worthy of Oscars, do they? For all of the fun, and the music too, in comparison to others in the genre, this film gets…