A character as enduring and beloved as Harry Potter can be a difficult thing for an actor to shake off, and Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Hogwarts years have in some ways felt like a reaction to his tenure as YA literature’s most iconic young wizard, the role in which he grew up on screen. Since Deathly Hallows: Part 2, he’s dabbled in horror (The Woman in Black and the upcoming Horns), lost his (gay) virginity as Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, and — alongside Jon Hamm — starred as a young physician in conversation with his older, morphine-addicted self in the British miniseries A Young Doctor’s Notebook. They’re varied roles, but they’ve all felt like deliberate departures from the former Boy Who Lived’s comfort zone.
But in his new movie What If, opening in select cities on Aug. 8, Radcliffe comes across less as having something to prove, and instead turns in an amiable glimpse into his possible future as a romantic lead. The movie pairs Radcliffe with Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) in what feels like a 2014 successor to (500) Days of Summer, a sideways love story that’s more articulate about its emotions than its characters are. In this case, Wallace (Radcliffe) and Chantry (Kazan) are Toronto twentysomethings who meet at a party and share an immediate connection — but she has a boyfriend she’s been with for years, and so they try to make a go of things as friends while ignoring the spark that suggests they could be more.
Directed by Michael Dowse, who made 2011’s sweet-natured, bloody-knuckled, quietly awesome hockey comedy Goon with Seann William Scott, What If is a cute exploration of the not-unexplored territory of whether or not men and women can ever be friends. But it’s rarely cutesy, despite being set in a world of knitting clubs, cartoon metaphors for a character’s loneliness, a score by The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman, and, if it need be said, a whole bunch of white people.
Romantic comedies, almost by definition, throw up a bunch of artificial barriers to keep its perfect-for-each-other leads from getting together until the inevitable happy ending. But what’s stopping Wallace and Chantry is the fact that the pair are too fundamentally nice to do something so terrible as to hurt other people in order to follow their hearts. They’re nice in a way that makes them bury their feelings in banter about Elvis’ second favorite sandwich and magnetic poetry and a million shared fleeting cultural references that stand in for the deeper connection they feel and are trying to insist is platonic.
What If is a movie about two people whose instincts are always to diffuse loaded situations. Wallace (who’s British, freeing Radcliffe from having to do an accent) dropped out of med school for a dull cubicle farm job after having his heart broken by a fellow student, while Chantry is an animator who actually turns down a promotion because she doesn’t want to deal with managing people. They’re so conflict-avoidant that Chantry mires herself in denial about her feelings for the determinedly well-behaved Wallace, even as the movie winkingly strands them again and again in atmospheric situations, huddled under an umbrella in a downpour or skinny dipping on a camping trip.
While Chantry and Wallace circle each other like two adorable zoo pandas refusing to mate, their friends are far less hesitant. An always enjoyable Adam Driver (Girls) plays Wallace’s unfettered college roommate Allan, who gloats over following up sex with nachos, meets Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) at the same party at which Wallace meets Chantry, and fast-forwards through the stages of relationship with ease while their friends remain in limbo. Rafe Spall plays Chantry’s high-flying boyfriend Ben, who doesn’t believe Wallace is as innocent as he appears, and whom the movie refuses to demonize even though he’s standing in the way of the romance we’re hoping for. Megan Park and Jemima Rooper fill out the likable cast as Chantry and Wallace’s respective sisters, each trying, unsuccessfully, to move on to new relationships themselves.
But it’s the chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan that holds everything together, and that makes What If such a winning rom-com alternative. Though they may sometimes feel like two indie pixies, their characters are too grounded and recognizable to be dismissed — and they just enjoy each other so much, even as they make a mess of things on their journey toward finally talking about how they feel. Theirs isn’t a grand story, but not everyone’s romance is epic and star-crossed. Sometimes it has to be worked through in tiny moments and realizations — and What If is the kind of movie that recognizes shared love of a sandwich can mean more than running through an airport or stopping a wedding ever could.
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