It’s been 379 days since med-school-dropout-turned-aimless-tech-manual-writer Wallace found his then-girlfriend making out with a doctor. Three hundred seventy-nine days of self-imposed isolation. Three hundred seventy-nine days of crawling up on the roof of his sister’s house to stare at the Toronto skyline and ponder how and why it all went so wrong.
But after 379 days he’s finally ready to delete his ex’s last voicemail. And maybe, just maybe, to move on.
His first social appearance in more than a year? A party thrown by his best friend, Allan. And while Wallace is absentmindedly piecing together magnetic poetry on Allan’s fridge (“Love is stupid monkeys in a slapstick hurricane”), serendipity strikes in the form of a spontaneous conversation with someone new.
Someone named Chantry who immediately begins to thaw his frozen heart.
Alas, Chantry is also someone, Wallace soon learns, who has a boyfriend. A pretty serious one, too—as in five-years-of-living-together serious. And despite Chantry’s obviously reciprocal interest in Wallace, she says (to him, to herself) that she’s not interested in jeopardizing her relationship with Ben.
She is interested, however, in being friends with Wallace … an offer he pretends to accept with enthusiasm.
Chantry (who’s got a promising career as an animator) and Ben (who’s got a promising career as a U.N. copyright lawyer) have a relationship that’s the envy of their friends. All Chantry and Wallace (who’s got a not-so-promising career as a mopey mess) have is a spark. A pretty serious one, though—something they’re trying hard to pretend isn’t as emotionally flammable as they both know it is.
But whether Chantry will ever admit she’s fallen in love with the guy who’s quite accidentally become the best friend she’s ever had is another question entirely.
There’s a lot of sexual content in What If, and we’ll deal with it a bit later. What’s interesting is amid that context and content, marriage is still depicted as valuable and worth aspiring to.
We see that solid value played out in the smolderingly passionate love affair of Allan and his girlfriend, Nicole. They’re constantly canoodling. But they recognize that they’ve each found someone they want to be with for the rest of their lives. And so, at a party announcing their engagement, they pull a switcheroo on gathered guests and announce they’re getting married … right now. A dandy of a disagreement later sends Allan to Wallace’s couch for a night. But even amid conflict, it’s suggested that marriage is well worth fighting for.
Allan bluntly counsels Wallace on his various choices with regard to confessing the truth about his feelings, eventually suggesting that he should just tell Chantry how he really feels. Indeed, Wallace and Chantry both have lessons to learn about love and honesty as their friendlationship deepens and gets more complicated. In the process, we witness a touching scene that gives us insight into Chantry’s character. She tells Wallace that the deepest hurt in her life came from losing her mother to cancer (“You don’t realize how quickly everything can fall apart until it does”). As a result, she’s vowed never to jeopardize anything that’s working in her life, saying, “It makes you want to hang onto anything good,” which includes both her plateaued relationship with Ben and her career (in which she keeps refusing promotions that would require her to move away from Toronto).
[Spoiler Warning] Chantry might have a hard time being honest with herself, but she is genuinely committed to Ben. It’s only after she sees him arm in arm with another woman that she begins to open the door to loving Wallace.
Wallace, for his part, reflects on how his parents’ divorce when he was 7 years old damaged him. He also has to muster the courage to risk pursuing Chantry honestly instead of merely accepting their “friendship.”
Joking references are made to the apocalypse and the Antichrist.
Chantry’s reluctance to tell the truth about her feelings for Wallace paves the way for her sexually aggressive younger sister, Dalia, to make a move on him. In a car, Dalia initiates a brief-but-passionate make-out session with Wallace—but he disengages because he realizes it will jeopardize any long-term prospect of love with Chantry.
And then there’s the rest of the sexual content.
Among the many verbal references here are the number of partners Chantry and Wallace have each had (4 and 7, respectively), erections, masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, manual stimulation, threesomes, rebound sex, pubic hair, Brazilian waxes, labia, gay marriage, abortion, gonorrhea and syphilis. Sexually active women are jokingly referred to as “whores” and “skanks.” Wallace even jokes about having “violated corpses” in med school.
Allan and Nicole hatch a misguided plan to force Wallace and Chantry to hook up. It involves skinny-dipping, and we see the former pair in their underwear, the latter going into the water nude (from the rear and in shadows). On the beach, Wallace and Chantry look at each other’s naked bodies (while the camera resists the temptation to peek). Allan and Nicole steal the would-be love birds’ clothes and leave them overnight, forcing the naked couple to share a sleeping bag to keep warm. (Chantry’s so angry about the setup that they don’t have sex.)
Women are repeatedly shown in cleavage-baring outfits. Chantry gets stuck in a tight dress in a clothing store’s changing room. When Wallace is forced to extricate her, we see her in her bra. While drunk, Chantry calls Ben and tries to initiate phone sex. (Her dress is unzipped, and we hear her telling Ben about her underwear.) We hear other conversations about Chantry and Ben’s cohabiting sex life, and Ben crudely warns Wallace away from his girl.
We see at least five different couples kissing intensely. And Allan and Nicole have a seemingly insatiable sexual connection. Nicole says, “Our love is dirty, baby. Sometimes it’s downright filthy,” telling friends before their wedding that she wants to “have sex forever until we die having sex.” Allan talks about being married until his “penis doesn’t work.” Wallace says he looks forward to sex getting “better and better” in marriage.
Ben gets jalapeño juice in his eye, and in the process of trying to help him, Wallace accidentally slams a door into him and knocks him out of a second-story window to the concrete below. (He suffers a broken arm and a tweaked neck). Later, Ben returns the “favor” by punching Wallace and knocking him down a flight of stairs. (He sports a nasty shiner on his eye.)
A corny-but-graphic horror movie includes images of a monstrous man’s stomach opening up to reveal teeth. Passing reference is made to cannibalism.
One f-word is surrounded by a few partials and/or substitutions (such as “fishhook”). There are nearly two-dozen s-words. We hear “a–hole” at least 10 times, along with a handful of crude or rude references to the male anatomy (including “d–k”). Somebody’s called a “douche.” God’s name is misused 20 times, Jesus’ twice.
Characters down alcoholic beverages throughout. Chantry and Wallace go to a club and slam shots. Chantry is clearly intoxicated after Allan and Nicole’s engagement party. Allan gets drunk too.
Babysitting his older sister’s kid, Wallace defies her instruction to stay away from treats and horror movies. Upon her return, they hide a carton of ice cream and turn the channel. But Mom, depressed about the bad date she’s just had, grabs the hidden ice cream and clicks back to the horror movie herself as she plops down next to them.
Wallace and Chantry engage in a prolonged conversation about the amount of undigested feces found in Elvis Presley’s body at his death. Allan and Wallace have a bizarre conversation about when you can “eat poop.” A meanspirited joke is made about the homeless.
Films like Harry Potter alum Daniel Radcliffe’s What If are among the most maddening for me to review. They make me want to like them. But I ultimately just can’t.
What If has a genuine core of sweetness revolving around a universal experience nearly everyone can relate to: coping with the heart-wrenching conundrum of falling for someone who, for whatever reason, isn’t available. It eschews cynicism, opting instead for an earnest endorsement of true love, lifelong fidelity and marriage, deeming all of those things to be very good and worth pursuing with your whole heart.
In all that, What If is almost old-fashioned.
It’s in the clinging content that things go seriously wrong. Namely, verbal (and, to a lesser extent, visual) references to a long litany of all things sexual. Breezy allusions to promiscuity, sex acts and sexual body parts are so casually lobbed into conversations that the working assumption among these hip, mostly single Toronto young adults must be that anything goes and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.
The collision is jarring. One minute I’m connecting emotionally with characters I genuinely understand and appreciate. The next I feel like I need to take a shower to wash off the dirty.
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me. Even as our culture gets more conservative in some areas (cigarettes, for instance, and keeping kids safe), it continues to lurch in a more libertine direction when it comes to sexual mores.
Clearly, in its worst moments, What If conforms ever so snugly to 21st-century society’s anything-goes sexual ethos. In its best ones, it suggests that the only truly safe place to experience the beauty of God’s gift of sexuality is in the context of lifelong commitment and marriage.
Oh, but there are so many more of the former moments than the latter, making me wonder, of course … what if?
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.