‘What if’ is a 2013 feature film from director Michael Dowse. It is a classic romance story of a boy falling in love with a girl but the girl has a boyfriend. What happens? I am sure you can guess, but what makes this film a triumph is the effect it inflicts unto its unexpected viewer. The romance genre is chock full of sappy overly sentimental works rammed with empty platitudes of americanised ‘I love yous’. But ‘What if’ is not this. It is the much appreciated minority in the love category.
Wallace (played surprisingly well by Daniel Radcliffe) bumps into Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a house party. They immediately strike up a rapport of self deprecation and sarcasm, the only problem is that Chantry has a boyfriend of five years. Wallace battles with his feelings of friendship to admiration then slowly to love, all the while knowing it is unrequited. So it’s not a wholly original storyline but the writing and acting is. What is beautifully fascinating to watch is Wallace’s infatuation with Chantry. The lingering moments that lead up to their inevitable relationship.
A specific moment that stays with you is when Chantry is getting changed in a clothes outlet. She gets a dress stuck over her head. She asks Wallace to help her but tells him he can’t open his eyes. Of course he does. He sees a butterfly tattoo on her back. We are so channeled to empathise with Wallace until this point that this scene seems to toyingly drag on. He so wants to touch her that the temptation is stretched out. It is tantalising but not crude. It is charged with romantic intrigue, one man’s devotion to another human being. ‘What if’ is full of these sort of sequences.
It is a film that summarises all the excitement leading up to a relationship, all the flirting, the playful to and fro of two people acknowledging that their friendship is turning into something deeper. What turns it from an average film to a great film is its naturalistic style. The couple have long over night phone calls, they lovingly insult each other and they speak about normal everyday things, going to parties, jokes about whales. It is this sense of ‘having been there yourself’ that works. A rarity in filmmaking for the director, writer and actors to be so in sync with each other. Definitely watch it if you want to feel all gooey inside.