I suppose we’re obligated to refer to What If as a millennial variation on When Harry Met Sally. It too asks, somewhat disingenuously (since the outcome is never really in doubt), whether men and women can be just friends. It too shows two characters dancing around their obvious attraction for each other as things get more and more complicated. It too has its fair share of wiseass snark, though it also has an earnestness that’s all its own — whenever it threatens to break into moments of full-on romantic wish-fulfillment, something pulls it back down to Earth.
Despite that title, What If isn’t a fantasy. Rather, let’s call it a romantic daydream — the kind that gets interrupted by the harsh reality of other people. It starts off with a thoroughly plausible meet-cute. Heartbroken med-school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and goofy animator Chantry (Zoe Kazan) meet one night over some fridge magnets they’re playing with at their friend Allan’s (Adam Driver) party. (Wallace uses the magnets to write out “Love is stupid monkeys dancing in a slapstick hurricane,” as one does when one is still in getting-over-a-bad-breakup mode.) Allan, Wallace’s college roommate and Chantry’s cousin, is a wild, forward guy; at the same party, he meets Nicole (the always fantastic Mackenzie Davis) and seals the deal within seconds. Wallace and Chantry, however, are more subdued and awkward, though they clearly like each other. Unfortunately, she has a boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), who works for the U.N. and is a few steps ahead of Wallace in the match game. Or, as Allan puts it to Wallace: “They live together. They own furniture. They have a cat. You have nothing.” That’s not entirely true, though: Wallace and Chantry do have late-night bonding sessions over dead celebrities’ eating habits, over alternate names for Cool Whip, over phone calls ruminating on the worst moment of their lives. They have friendship, and the forbidden possibility of something more.
And so, the great dance begins. These two are clearly meant for each other and spend more and more time together as the little signifiers of their relationship accumulate. Sometimes, these are subtle: a too-close moment under an umbrella, or an unreturned “I love you” over the phone to a significant other. Sometimes, they’re more fantastical: a silly mishap in a clothing store’s dressing room that results in a sensuous exchange of unseen glances. But each person stays on their side of the relationship line, self-righteously pretending that their friendship proves that things need not always be complicated by romance, even as everything becomes complicated by romance.
I’ll admit it: I fell hard for What If, even as I realized that in an alternate universe I may have wanted to punch all of these characters out. It might have all been a little too twee, a little too smug, or way too dark, but this talented cast carefully walks a very fine line. Thanks to them, the film remains romantic and light on its feet even as it depicts genuine emotional pain. The tense interplay of eagerness and nervousness on Radcliffe’s face is hilarious, heartbreaking, and all too real. As evidenced by both this and Kill Your Darlings, he’s become expert at conveying little moments of ordinary human anxiety. (Once upon a time, Woody Allen would have worked wonders with him.) Meanwhile, Driver is his usual adorably confident and weird self, adding just the right hint of absurdism to the film: Watch the death stare he gives a maid of honor who rambles through a way-too-TMI speech at a character’s wedding late in the film.
But it’s Kazan who really stands out here, as she turns a character who could have easily become a collection of too-cute quirks into a vulnerable, flesh-and-blood human being. We see that she really cares for Ben, even as she drifts more and more towards Wallace, and we also see that this tears her up inside. What If may start off as a sweet movie about a lovelorn guy who meets a cute but taken girl. But it transforms before our very eyes into something else — a movie about someone trying to navigate her way through the real world of consequence and hurt. In the end, What If belongs to Zoe Kazan. And both she and it are wonderful.