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What If | Review

The C Word: Dowse’s Latest a Joy Despite Censor Scramble

The F Word Michael Dowse What If Poster Don’t let the marketing snafu and the hopelessly generic title fool you into thinking that What If is the forgettable rom com it’s being offered up as. Directed by Canadian director Michael Dowse, the man behind the Fubar films and the equally underrated Goon (2011), the film premiered last fall at the Toronto Film Festival as The F Word and has since been retooled to meet the constrictions of the MPAA rating system and snag a PG-13 rating. While this was an ill-advised move since the film isn’t designed for the bauble headed teens hungry for more heteronormative confirmation about what adolescent romance should look like, Dowse’s final product prevails as an enjoyable jaunt through a stale genre. Ultimately ending up exactly where we think it will, the journey there is always fresh and never contrived, balanced neatly on a quartet of likeable performances.

Still in anguish over his break-up with his girlfriend (Sarah Gadon), med-school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an intriguing young woman at his best friend Allan’s (Adam Driver) party (she happens to be Allan’s cousin). They talk, maybe vaguely flirt a little, and Wallace walks Chantry home. But when they both express delight over the evening they’ve experienced, Wallace is disappointed to learn that Chantry isn’t single, and is locked into an enjoyable five year relationship with boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). Chantry still expresses interest in being Wallace’s friend, and shares her phone number, which he promptly disposes of. A chance meeting transpires again when they both attend a screening of A Princess Bride on their own, and soon the two are thick as thieves, though Wallace finds his romantic inclinations only deepening. It doesn’t help to see his friend Allan become quickly committed to the young woman he also met at the party, the sprightly Nicole (Mackenzie Davis). When Ben gets an opportunity to be promoted (he’s an expert in copyright law for the U.N.) and live abroad for six months, it forces Chantry to also reconsider the attachment she’s also developed to Wallace, even though she doggedly insists that men and women have the ability to just remain friends.

So if this all sounds generic, it’s because it basically is. But what Dowse and screenwriter Elan Mastai are doing (working off of an original play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi) is breathing a bit of realism into the proceedings, making What If feel genuine even if it is familiar. The complications that ensue when men and women try to remain ‘just friends’ has been the impetus of many a rom-com, but the nod to Reiner with A Princess Bride (he also directed that juggernaut of the genre, When Harry Met Sally…) indicates the level of magic they’re going for and sometimes succeed in creating.

Kazan and Radcliffe make a likeable enough couple, though the potency of the material is generally delivered by how their situation is navigated rather than their onscreen chemistry. But Kazan always excels at the magnetic girl next door role, having the innate to ability to come across as an actual person even when she’s not playing one (Ruby Sparks). Radcliffe is equally likeable, though most of the film’s guffaws are generated from Adam Driver. Mackenzie Davis does her best to match Driver, but the use of her character sometimes feels strained.

What’s more impressive is how generously gray all of this is, with Rafe Spall’s Ben actually presented as a loving, decent partner for Chantry, even if he may not be exactly the best match. The bar is high for Chantry—she potentially has a lot to lose if she leaves Ben. The script’s reluctance to villainize him adds a bit of extra weight to decisions ultimately made, usually the throwaway tail end of these types of films.

Certainly, the film isn’t without some tendencies that may grate. Since Chantry works in animation, a cartoon meant to represent her deceased mother flies like a specter through the proceedings, which seems an unnecessary bid for a note of hard-won melancholy. But even as it ends on an utterly predictable note, What If still defies expectations in its examination of romance. It’s a pity we couldn’t get the version written for adults.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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