WhatIfcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2013, 98 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including references throughout, partial nudity and language
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+

What If Daniel Radcliffe took a break from the horror-thriller movies he’s been making since his Harry Potter run ended and tried his hand at a romantic comedy? And what if he was paired with writer-actress Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks)?

According to Radcliffe, “There was something lovely about just stepping up on the set and talking,” since this was the first contemporary character he’s ever played.

So what if a nice-guy med school dropout named Wallace (Radcliffe), who’s been burned one too many times in a relationship, meets a woman (Kazan) who already has a boyfriend and clicks with her instantly? What if she drops the “f bomb” on him that no guy likes to hear: “Let’s be friends. Just friends”? And what if the two of them find themselves growing so close as friends that he definitely wants it to be more, and on some level, so does she? What would it take for good friends to move beyond that, without wrecking what they have? And without pushing the film’s rating into R territory?

That’s the premise of What If, a PG-13 rated comedy-drama-romance that features intelligent writing, a believable chemistry between the slightly staid Wallace and borderline free spirit Chantry, and one “close-your-eyes” skinny-dipping moment that shows both actors’ bodies from behind in a moonlit (sorry, bad pun) long shot.

These two are friends, and so the emphasis is on friendship and clever dialogue rather than the steamy couplings and break-ups and make-ups that often shape the contemporary rom-com. There’s a meet-cute, certainly, but everything else takes a different route from the typical romantic comedy. That’s refreshing, especially since these two are moral individuals who care about each other, and the film emphasizes caring over romance, and romance over lust (which hardly makes an appearance).  

WhatIfscreenAdam Driver (Girls, Inside Llewyn Davis) and Megan Park (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) play supporting roles that push in the direction of facilitators, and there are other minor characters as well, including Rafe Spall as the boyfriend. But What If is really a two-person show. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call Radcliffe’s performance stellar, he holds his own as a newcomer to the genre and is helped considerably by having to react opposite the much more at ease Kazan.

If your children are or were Harry Potter fans and want to see what Radcliffe has been up to since, What If is the only light film you can show them. The Woman in Black (2012) was a PG-13 period horror-thriller in the old Hammer tradition, Kill Your Darlings (2013) was an R-rated period murder-drama about the beat generation in which Radcliffe played gay poet Allen Ginsberg, and Horns (2013) was a creepy R-rated fantasy-horror drama. What If is actually the best post-Potter work Radcliffe has done, and who knows? What if he becomes more comfortable in the genre? What if he really finds his stride? Will this Brit take over where Hugh Grant left off?