On the surface The F Word (or What If, if you’re reading this from outside of Canada) is a deceptively simple meet-cute comedy with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as friends who can’t acknowledge the romantic tension between them. It looks on a passing glance like something straight out of the Hollywood playbook, but it’s a lot more perceptive and realistic than a simple synopsis might suggest. Beloved Canadian filmmaker Michael Dowse (Goon, Fubar) and screenwriter Elan Mastai have created a rich, thoughtful, and purposefully problematic romance that hasn’t really been attempted or nailed this well since When Harry Met Sally.
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has recently crawled out from under his yearlong funk following a nasty break-up and washing out of medical school to develop a crush on Chantry (Zoe Kazan), a young Torontonian animator who just wants to be best friends and finds herself in a long term relationship to a bright young man (Rafe Spall) who’s about to go away to Ireland on business. The friendship stands, but complications, coincidences, and their friends seem to always be bringing them closer together as romantic ideals.
Everything about The F Word works despite adhering to the time honoured tradition of the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” story. Wallace is an intelligent sad-sack who seems more cautious than openly depressed, and Chantry is the rare female leading character in a rom-com that actually has a sense of agency to her and a life that she starts off happy with and stays happy with. Both are cast in opposition to their quirky friends, family, and significant others, but these characters aren’t so overtly over-the-top that the film strains for credibility. If anything, the people they choose as friend inform who they are and why they make such a good pairing. The story unfolds around everyone in with a natural, light touch instead of forced theatrics or dramatic contrivance. When the film does manage a moment of what might appear to be a time honoured cliché, it’s quickly realized that such notions are a terrible idea.
Make no mistake: The F Word is not a film about “friend-zoning,” the male privileged phenomena that states you become someone’s friend if you wait too long to share your feelings with someone you love. It’s a film about denial, mixed feelings, and great uncertainty. Dowse certainly understands comedy better than most other Canadian directors, but he also understands how to adequately build tension between Wallace and Chandry to make the audience feel the gut churning butterflies they feel around each other. Granted, the story does focus mainly on Wallace’s feelings, but scenes where Chandry has to take stock of her own life sometimes come with a quiet melancholy that feels lived in rather than manufactured. They feel like real people worth spending time with in reality instead of movie characters designed to perpetuate any sort of empty, feel-good sentiment.
A great deal of the film’s success has to come from Radcliffe and Kazan’s stellar rapport and delivery of Mastai’s quick witted lines. There’s never a moment where Wallace and Chandry feel unequal, and the give and take between these two talented performers marks some of the career best work for the both of them. The way Radcliffe pauses every time Wallace seems like he’s about to say something sarcastic and the way you can constantly see his wheels spinning while contemplating something are nice touches that most films in the genre would never allow to sneak through in favour of grand gestures and posturing. Ditto how Kazan never takes any shit from anyone. She’s strong and her mind stays made up about things until she has all the information, leading to a portrait of someone who agonizes and internalizes every decision making process in her life. The film ultimately feels just as much about her slow breaking down as it does Wallace’s regaining of a sense of self. Dowse allows his actors to take characters that are already established well enough on the page and bring different traits and a lot of nuance in terms of how they carry themselves.
Toronto – which if you think about it, is kind of like another character in the movie – also hasn’t looked this good on screen in some time. But in terms of other actual characters in the film, a special citation is definitely in order for Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis, who threaten to run off with the film every time they’re on screen as Wallace’s madly in love friends. These are the characters that are allowed to run wild, and both actors are relishing the chance to do it.
The F Word might be the perfect film to transition from a summer full of blockbusters into a fall full of more prestigious awards season fare. It has a freshness to it, and yet it’s familiar enough to be accessible to everyone. These kinds of films don’t take rocket scientists to make them, but they rarely end up this entertaining and well rounded.