Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver
The bar for indie movies is thus: If you can justify being more than a Sunday night Netflix curiosity, you’ve done alright. Safety Not Guaranteed, Frances Ha, In Our Nature; are examples. And it’s hard to pin down why. But there’s a tendency for these sorts of films to devolve into basically fantasy, be it with stupid characters, unrealistic situations, or glaring logic inconsistencies. There’s a “twee allotment” that I like to assign. I’m more liberal than most but there’s certainly a threshold. Basically, it’s the amount of precious bullshit that can reasonably be passed off as drama. (Think Juno’s burger phone.) So when a film takes more than it deserves the suspension of disbelief is broken and I’m taken right out of the movie. It’s actually surprising, given the closeness and intimacy one expects small filmmakers to have with their material, that the core tools for storytelling (characterization, empathy, struggle, growth) are so often thrown out the window.
What If is on the good side of that spectrum. The dialogue is snappy which keeps the melodrama at bay. The characters are idealistic in a grew-up-on-Disney kind of way but tempered believably by life’s disappointments and challenges. Med-school dropout Wallace is in a funk when he meets animator Chantry. The two instantly hit it off and slowly become more important parts of each other’s lives, despite Chantry’s long-term relationship with her successful boyfriend Ben. It’s clear right off the bat that the two have chemistry, and they hint at their mutual feelings in moments, Wallace tiptoeing around the treacherous territory and Chantry torn between potential lives she isn’t even sure she wants.
The narrative framework is familiar, young people and their problems. But Wallace and Chantry have a playful repartee that infuses levity into otherwise mood-flattening proceedings. Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play well off each other, often in conversations that look and feel at least partially improvised. Kazan is believable as a young woman at a loss answering the big questions, and Radcliffe is able to shed his Harry Potter typecasting, coming off very un-earnest, un-heroic, and down right funny. I’m not sure if he’s a leading man yet, (it’s the patchy stubble) but quiet material like this suits him.
Importantly, the characters are smart, which is appreciated. Reactions are naturalistic without drifting into mumblecore. The dialogue is peppy and post-modern enough to not some off too sappy. There is a bit of sap, of course. The wedding ending was wholly unnecessary, if flat out out-of-place for the genre. But these people are just cynical enough to be convincing as human beings that have lived and loved.
Oftentimes, people in these types of movies are bumbling and introspective to their own detriment. They act like they just woke up after being frozen for twenty years, plopped into adult situations with a child’s understanding of how the world works. And yes, there’s an argument to made for retaining a child-like wonder for the world. But that sort of reductionist thinking is merely a consequence of nostalgia, a rose-colored glasses view of yesteryear. Miranda July in Me and You and Everyone We Know is basically a little girl, getting into strange cars for no reason and resisting everything uncomfortable. She’s weird, but for weirdness’s sake. In real life, even shut-ins are pessimistic enough to not act like that. In contrast, Kazan’s Chantry is alluring in that manic pixie dream girl way, but also motivated by realistic expectations, plugged into communities that define her in complex ways, and is capable of self-actualization unrelated to her relationship with a man. An exciting executive job in Asia might not necessarily be what Chantry wants, but the point is that her character is not static like many quiet auteurs want their women to be.
I’d like to see Kazan next play completely against type, makeup, attitude, everything. Because unfortunately, even when she’s attempting to criticize the manic pixie dream girl, playing the titular character in her own film Ruby Sparks, she fits that archetype effortlessly. She’s alternatively pretty, intelligent, and effervescent enough to fall into that trap. She’s good though. She’s a talent.
When it comes to these movies, you have to go all the way. If you’re striving for different, something to put your audience on edge and compel them to see life sideways, make your film bonkers. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Amelie. You can justify the weirdness of your characters if your setting is also sightly twisted. It doesn’t have to be dark and nightmarish, but if your protagonist is a cartoon, attempting to sell an intimate, realistic slice of life premise is disingenuous.
What If plays it just about straight, with enough humor and wit from its cast to elicit a compassionate response. As a mature piece of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles counter-programming, it was enjoyable.