Despite the best intentions from the filmmakers behind What If to differentiate itself from the traditional rom-com formula, they have still crafted a movie that is, by and large, generic. However, one definitely gets the sense that writer Elan Mastai and director Michael Dowse (adapting a stage play) are making bold moves that aim to subvert unsavory elements of the cinematic romantic pursuit. Luckily for them, what separates a by-the-numbers storyline in movies like this are charismatic performers and clever dialogue, two attributes this film has in spades. Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe bring liveliness and energy to their roles here as Wallace and Chantry, making for a truly appealing pairing.
Wallace, having spent nearly a year in hibernation following a rough break-up with a fellow medical student, finally is coaxed out into public to attend a party being thrown by best friend Allan (Adam Driver, more on him in a bit) wherein he strikes up an immediate rapport with Chantry, equally unadept in social situations and a more-than-willing partner in some verbal back and forth. The end of the night reveals Chantry to be in a serious relationship with Ben (Rafe Spall, baxtering like nobody’s business) and after a bit of stop-and-start, she and Wallace begin to hang out, exploring their obvious chemistry in the hermetically sealed safety of a platonic friendship. We all know where this is leading, and we know more often than not where films of this nature stumble is in the manufacturing of conflict to prevent us from getting there. What If does an admirable job of not planting us in a morass of misunderstandings, instead having the conflict come from two people who are aware that they have a spark and are afraid to confront what that might mean.
It helps when you have an able supporting cast in the often thankless role of best friend/confidant. Adam Driver plays Wallace’s best friend and Chantry’s cousin in the picture, and his developing relationship with Mackenzie Davis’ character provides a reliable source of energy throughout (you’d happily follow their relationship instead, a rarity in these pictures). I can count the number of times I’ve been at a record store and witnessed bros opining over the options in their love life on no hands, so for it not to feel completely contrived here is a testament to the dynamism of the performers. Director Dowse created one wildly underrated film in the hockey comedy Goon (watch it on Netflix!), and he’s done it again here. He has taken something that could prove disastrously familiar in other hands and made it feel fresh, thanks to a winning cast and clever dialogue.