In the highly imperfect world of contemporary romantic comedies, What If is as close to perfect as anything we’ve got, not least for the way it captures the abject hopefulness of young people who’d like to be in love but don’t know how to go about it. Who does know how to go about it? Perhaps that explains the near-universal appeal of romantic comedies, at least when they’re done well. And while What If does have its blemishes — there are times when it’s just too cute for its own good — it’s so enjoyable from moment to moment that it’s easy to forgive. There’s no anguish so delectable as that of meeting the right person at the wrong time, and What If gets it.
Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace is a would-be doctor who left medical school after a messy breakup sent him ’round the bend. An expat Englishman, he’s been squirreling himself away in his sister’s attic, spending too much of his time sitting on the roof and staring out at the Toronto skyline. One night, at a party hosted by a friend (the ubiquitous Adam Driver), he and an attractive young woman meet cute over a set of refrigerator poetry magnets. Zoe Kazan’s Chantry is an animator — whimsy alert! — and the two strike up one of those all-too-believable flirtations that skitters around madly like a Tickle Bee toy. She seems to like him, but she won’t allow him to make a move. Later, he spots her getting her coat, and he darts over to grab his. “I was just leaving without saying good-bye, like a total dick,” he says a little too eagerly, even though it’s obvious she was going to be the first to split.
But she does allow him to walk her home, and just as she reaches her door, she pointedly drops a line about how her boyfriend will be worried that she’s stayed out so late. Poor Wallace, already smitten, pulls back immediately, even as Chantry, so clueless in that way girls can be, pulls a page from the notebook she’s carrying and writes her phone number on it, suggesting that maybe the two could hang out together “as friends.” Wallace tosses the paper away as soon as he gets to the safety of his roof; as it floats off into the nighttime treetops, the little cartoon selfie Chantry has drawn on the back comes to life and takes wing, too, a sad, airborne relic of all the things that might have been.
Of course, not even the presence of “the boyfriend” (played ably by Rafe Spall, son of Timothy) means the end of Wallace and Chantry. If you’re allergic to too much winsomeness, you’ll have to steel yourself for a few things in What If: Chiefly, you might have to get used to Kazan and her Blythe-doll eyes — she’s like an adorable acorn in a mini coat and tights. But somehow, Kazan keeps it all in check, and her over-the-top pixie quality probably helps draw off some of Radcliffe’s nervous energy. He’s terrific, regardless — he’s a good leading man precisely because he isn’t a model of poise. When Wallace fills up the air with evasive chatter, we can see the desperation in his eyes: He loves a girl who’s got a serious, live-in boyfriend, for God’s sake, and at certain times in life, that’s the biggest possible problem any human being could possibly have. Radcliffe makes us see both the misery of the situation and its utter absurdity: He’s being tortured, but he makes it all seem so casual.
What If — which was adapted for the screen by Elan Mastai, from a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi — suggests that the best romances begin as friendships, anyway. Radcliffe and Kazan are wonderful in a scene in which she drags him shopping, looking for a dress to wear to a big party. She spots, on a mannequin, a racy red one that she loves, and whispers something in his ear. “Do you think it’s too much for me?” It is — we can see that it doesn’t quite suit her — but he tells her no, of course not. It’s one of those little red lies that so often get love going in the first place. The director is Michael Dowse, whose pictures include the wonderful and sorely under-appreciated 2011 Goon, starring Seann William Scott as a bouncer who shocks his overeducated family with his dubious ambition of becoming a hockey star. What If has a similarly easygoing, ramshackle charm: It never feels as if it’s trying too hard, even if maybe, sometimes, it is. Romance, after all, is elusive, kind of like the perfect romantic comedy. We’ll take whatever we can get.