What If

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DIR: Michael Dowse • WRI: Elan Mastai • PRO: David Gross, Macdara Kelleher, Marc Stephenson • ED: Yvann Thibaudeau  • DOP: Rogier Stoffers •  Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall, Megan Park

 


What If
is a title just as suggestive and open to interpretation, if in a somewhat different register, as the original name for this film, The F Word. While the latter, former title hints at the raunchy humour that cuts through its sweetness, like the bacon in a Fool’s Gold Loaf sandwich, What If suggests the longing, romantic potential of unrealised desire which motivates the film’s leads.

What If you met a woman with whom you have an instant, mutual attraction but she is already in a happy, long-term relationship? This is a situation which Wallace (Radcliffe), a somewhat morose medical-school drop-out with trust issues, initially views as a dilemma after he clicks with the shy, betrothed animator Chantry (Kazan) at a party.  After she rightly calls him out on not wanting to be friends because she has a boyfriend (Spall), the two embark on a fun-filled and engaging platonic friendship, frequently tested by increasingly ludicrous situations (two of which involve partial nudity), Chantry’s boyfriend’s relocation from Canada to Ireland, and their growing emotional connection.

Comparisons to (500) Days of Summer have been rife, and it’s easy to see why – the films share a quirky sensibility, a former child actor and indie darling as its stars, and forego some of the traditional beats and expectations of the genre. What If also manages the sadly rare feat of being a romantic comedy that is both convincingly romantic and actually funny.

With the central concern of the film’s plot  – can men and women be friends? – so reminiscent of a certain Rob Reiner comedy, and the frequently unlikely sources of deadpan humour, this could just have been When Harry (Potter) Met Sally, 2.0. What If, however, gives us slightly younger leads and takes some risks with its storytelling to make us second-guess the generically foregone conclusion. For example, the temptation to make Chantry’s boyfriend Ben a boring, careless loser we root for her to lose to be with Wallace is avoided. Instead, he is successful, intelligent, handsome, and a largely reasonable fella – complicating the rom-com route from A to B a little more than usual. Similarly, the intense parallel relationship of Allan (Driver) and Nicole (Davis) is another that has a less-than-fairytale structure, which makes it all the more interesting to watch its rapid development.

Occasionally, the film’s quirkiness is a bit cloying: Its animated interludes, non-sequitur in-jokes and hallucinated sequences are somewhat hit and miss. Similarly, the increasingly contrived situations ‘testing’ Wallace and Chandry’s friendship do detract from the naturalistic scenes where they just casually hang out and have believable, if earnest, conversations – scenes fizzing with good humour due to Kazan and Radcliffe’s effervescent chemistry.

The performances carry this film even through its weak points – these two light each other up, and the ultimate emotional denouement between the two is a really moving moment.  Kazan fleshes out her dithery character as a somewhat overwhelmed young woman with a lot of choices and potential, making her decisions or lack of decisions understandable and relatable. It’s great to see Radcliffe not only coming on as a talented comedic actor, but in a contemporary setting for once, even if the larger-than-life rising star Adam Driver, at 6 ft. 3, overshadows him both figuratively and literally as his flatmate. The unlikely presence of gawky Girls star Driver as a brash alpha-male actually sums up the type of romantic comedy What If is trying to be and what films in this recently weak, uncertain genre need to do to succeed – challenge expectations, balance romance and comedy, and have a deep bench of supporting players. Of these supporting players, as aforementioned, Rafe Spall makes for a winning spanner in the works; while Megan Park as Chantry’s sister Dalia, eschews the ditzy blonde stereotype she initially appears to fill in favour of quick, well-timed comedic relief; and Jemima Rooper, in a brief appearance as Wallace’s sister Ellie, has an impressively high laughs-to-screen-time ratio.

What If asks if we think these kinds of relationships can ever work, and is surprisingly mature in presenting its answers, even if the conclusion does feel a little neater than the sum of its parts and the complex, grey, follow-up questions.
What If your best friend is the love of your life? What If you went to see this smart, quirky and emotionally-engaging film, with sparkling lead performances, to find out?

 

Stacy Grouden

15A (See  IFCO for details)

101 minutes

What If is released 22nd August 

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Cinema Review: Breathe In

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DIR: Drake Doremus • WRI: Drake Doremus, Ben York Jones • PRO: Steven M. Rales, Mark Roybal, Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling • DOP: John Guleserian • ED: Jonathan Alberts  DES: Katie Byron • CAST: Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, Amy Ryan, Mackenzie Davis

 
Drake Droemus’ Like Crazy was the toast of Sundance 2011, with the film and star Felicity Jones scooping the Grand and Special Jury Prizes respectively. Like Crazy was praised for mixing an extremely naturalistic approach to dialogue with a classically romcom sort of plot. Almost all the dialogue was improvised, leaving the film heavy on charm but light on plot and character development. Droesmus’ latest film, also starring Jones, is a little more scripted and a lot more ambitious. The plot is, once again, by numbers, and the pressure is on the players and the cinematography to make the film the harrowing mood piece it wants to be.

Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) is a music teacher suffering from a standard case of wasted ambition. As a youth, he tried to make it as a musician in New York City. Once his daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) was born he had to abandon that dream, and now he’s more or less settled. Then a British accent arrives in the form of 18-year-old exchange student Sophie (Jones). She’s actually staying in the Reynolds’ houshold, a remarkably uncontrived-seeming contrivance, and breakfasts etc. get fraught and whispery. Keith’s wife Megan collects cookie jars; she also fails to understand her husband’s inner life, dismissing his cello playing as a mere hobby. Sophie is a pianist, and about to face choices similar to the ones Keith faced at her age. Keith is due a mid-life crisis and it looks as though it may coincide with Sophie’s coming-of-age.

The basic plots of Like Crazy and Douchebag (Droemus’ 2010 comedy) were clichéd, almost perversely so. The former was as standard a romantic comedy as can be – beach walks, bumper car rides – with the improvised dialogue gimmick; Douchebag, an indie road movie, a sort of Sideways Greenberg with mumbling. In Breathe In, as in those two films, the organic-seeming way that little conversations unfold exists in tension with the stubborn need for plot and character development. I’m sure it’s pretty hard to even comprehend a character’s arc when you’re forced to literally make it up as you go along. This is a problem with Doremus’ films in general. Indie cinema often sacrifices plot in favour of a sort of patterning, a series of fractals; a co-operation of nuanced acting and cinematography that can sometimes give a far fuller sense of a character and atmosphere than the old three-act. But Breathe In is just too loose to make it work.

That’s not to say that the actors don’t try their hardest. Pearce is relentlessly adaptable, and he does the mumbly patois like he’s never heard the name Felicia Jollygoodfellow. Sophie is there to represent Keith’s past to him, to whisper vague profundities from the edge of the frame, but Jones’ charm goes a way towards filling up her somewhat underwritten character. We know from real life that the Keith-Sophie dynamic isn’t really a romantic one, that they usually use each other as excuses to work out, or just act out, their selfishness and immaturity. We plumb Keith’s depths fairly thoroughly and float around there for a while (and you don’t need armbands) while Sophie stays irritatingly enigmatic, Jones doing her best to define those blurred edges. She and the camera are allies in this, both bobbing around Keith as he stares out windows and fails to recover from a bad case of adolescence. John Guleserian’s cinematography is superb, all dark tones and impossibly fluid camera movements. But as the film goes on, any beauty tends to be dispersed by Keith’s increasingly manchild-ish presence.

There is, admittedly, great verisimilitude in the lack of incident and the halting dialogue. The skill with which Droemus directs improvisations is obvious and, judging by his previous efforts, hard-won. It sometimes seems as though it’s entirely up to the process of interlocution to reveal things organically; that even the actors don’t know when they’re going to drop in that bit of information that will further the plot. But the plot is the problem. American indie cinema has far too much time for the sad sack might’ve-been; I thought that Greenberg and The Squid and the Whale had stopped anyone from ever taking this sort of story seriously again, but apparently not.

Darragh John McCabe

 

98 mins
Breathe In is released on 19th July 2013

 

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