While the new indie rom-com, What If, has a serious aversion to conflict, it’s also inescapably charming. A strong cast delivers enough laughs and cheeky irreverence to elevate this otherwise breezy tale to more delightfully cynical heights. You probably won’t remember it in a couple of weeks, but What If is a great way to spend the evening with your future ex.
The true measure of success for any romantic comedy is how badly we want the lead characters to hook up. On that count, What If scores major points. Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan) are two slightly-odd ducks who “meet cute” at a friend’s party; while everyone else mingles, they abscond to the kitchen to re-arranging refrigerator magnets. Wallace hasn’t had much luck in love, a point frequently hammered home by his outgoing best friend, Allan (Adam Driver). While Allan thinks nothing of propositioning a total stranger, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), to some impromptu nookie, Wallace and Chantry are endearingly awkward with each other. They feel more like old souls reconnecting than new lovers looking for a quick hookup. They’re smart, adorable, and make a perfect match… so, of course, they can’t be together.
There are two obstacles standing between Wallace and Chantry’s eternal bliss. One is Chantry’s long-time boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), and the other is Wallace’s strict ethical code regarding matters of the heart. On the surface, Ben might seem the taller hurdle, but Chantry’s romantic entanglement is nothing compared to Wallace’s inability to handle the emotional ambiguities of an adult relationship. Ben may be a “nice catch” who is clearly destined for bigger things, but he’s much too square for Chantry’s funky sensibilities. Wallace, on the other hand, prides himself on being the “dumper” in past relationships; recognizing things were unfixable before his partner even realized something was broken. He values self-respect and honesty above all else. These high moral standards force him to hide his lust for Chantry, trapping him in the dreaded “friend zone.”
There’s nothing particularly new or interesting happening here, but Radcliffe and Kazan just suck you into their story. They share such an easygoing rapport that it’s a pleasure to eavesdrop on their conversations. Based on the play, Toothpaste and Cigars, Elan Mastai’s script luxuriates in the complexities and nuances of language without becoming overly stagey. Director, Michael Dowse, keeps things simple, allowing his actors plenty of time and space to establish the quirky rhythms of this world. He adds a few visual flourishes to mix things up (an animated doodle from Chantry’s notebook makes the occasional cameo), but mostly he just keeps our attention focused on the would-be couple. We want Wallace and Chantry to be together, even if they must first suffer through the inevitable rom-com tropes to get there.
Despite the darker undertones emanating from Wallace’s bleak view of romantic relationships, What If keeps the emotions somewhat muted. Like Wallace, the film is easygoing and restrained. In fact, the complete lack of dramatic tension is a potentially-crippling problem for What If. Ben, who might have proven a worthy adversary for Wallace, is quickly dispatched to Europe, sidestepping any possible drama. Chantry’s sister (Megan Park) is a simmering sexpot with designs on Wallace, but everything stays improbably amicable after her seduction goes horribly awry. Even the inevitable confrontation between Wallace and Ben is abrupt and anti-climactic. Indeed, it takes over an hour before anyone faces a critical decision, by which time it feels almost tacked on. Because the only real stakes revolve around the central relationship, Radcliffe and Kazan must carry the entire movie on their backs. Luckily, they’re up to the challenge.
What If will never be mistaken for a classic rom-com, but it’s smart enough to entrust its observant script to a cast of talented young actors. Radcliffe, Kazan and Driver are excellent, overpowering the film’s flaws with their charisma and energy. The lack of dramatic tension keeps this movie light on theme and shallow on depth, but the filmmakers aren’t concerned with making grand statements about Millennial romance. This is just a truthful little story about two good people trying to find happiness together. It’s a lot like life… with better production values.
— J.R. Kinnard