At the end of The F Word, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan) get married. This isn’t surprising, but it is, for me, disappointing. What’s to be most valued in this film, written by Elan Mastai based on the play Cigars and Toothpaste by TJ Dawe and Michael Rinaldi and directed by Michael Dowse, is its brutal honesty about the complicated dynamics of two friends who may or may not be attracted to one another and the concessions they have to make in order to not upset that dynamic. It essentially plays out like When Harry Met Sally…, but less inclined to make one person a victim or a pathetic figure. It lays out its options openly and realistically, acknowledging that people sometimes have to do painful things in order to maintain a kind of balance.
Wallace is a sad sack medical school dropout who is still in the process of getting over the ex-girlfriend that cheated on him. He meets Chantry at a party, a young woman who is an animator and who is sharp witted. The two get along together and there’s a hint of a spark there. Their compatibility with one another is undeniable. The caveat is that Chantry has a boyfriend of five years. Thus, they are friends, navigating around intricacies of friendship.
If one decides to peruse my dusty closet, the skeletons one will come upon include my unironic love for The Stepford Wives remake, the fact that I’ve never seen The Princess Bride, and that I once used to use the phrase “the Friend Zone”. I don’t anymore, to be sure, but I admittedly perpetuated that idea, I used to fixate on the Eternal(ly Heteronormative) Question, I used to label myself as a Nice Guy. I used to feel sorry for myself. I’ve grown up considerably, though, but I nonetheless still find the dynamics interesting, at least from an amateur sociological point of view. Just interactions and desire in general. But few films have the guts to approach that subject honestly without having to concede to a well-known formula. They end up recycling the same ideas in old ways. In reality, people entangled in such things move on with their life and end up as friends. (The only one I can think of that doesn’t really do this is Dolan’s Heartbeats, but I don’t think that really counts.) This does not happen in The F Word, its very letter representing “Friend”. (Its American title, What If, is dumb and makes its ending even less of a surprise, buying into the conventions that the film is actively eschewing.)
So, I end up feeling two ways about this film: its ending undermines what I feel is the primary point of the film, that two people can be friends, that one person can pine for the other but understand that it’s better to have them as a friend than not at all, that sometimes having and working with that relationship is complex, but that it can work. It doesn’t villainize any character, not even Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rate Spall), but treats them as humans with needs and desires. So my ideal film is that they don’t get together. Wallace gets over Chantry and accepts it as a phase in his life and they remain friends. Their trajectory as people doesn’t hinge on the fact that either of them had feelings for one another, just that they have excellent chemistry together as *people*. Chantry goes on to put her career first, what happens with her longtime boyfriend doesn’t matter, she is her own person and utilizes the agency given to her throughout most of the script.
I kind of wonder how aware the film is of its ridiculous ending. Unlike something like They Came Together, its self-awareness is modest and never pointed (and never in a way as if to make a statement about romantic comedies). I was actively rooting and hoping that the two wouldn’t get together because that’s not usually what happens. I was once incredibly infatuated with my best friend, but it didn’t work out. But we were/are still friends; the subsequent dynamic we had together was stronger than it had been prior. The original ending of Nora Ephron’s script for When Harry Met Sally… involved Harry and Sally being friends. But, the ending was changed because it didn’t play well with audience expectations. I think it’s important to address this because the Question of whether men and women can be friends is dumb. Obviously men and women can be friends. People can be friends regardless of their gender. It’s only when we preoccupy ourselves with that question does it become an issue. The question is, as aforementioned, also very heteronormative and doesn’t factor in queer people. Can I, as a bisexual person, be friends with anyone then? No, because I’m a misanthrope. SO were the film to put that question to rest, maybe it’d be more helpful in the long run in terms of building up these strange expectations and perpetuating these really obnoxious myths about ourselves and other people.
But since the film is not what I want it to be, and what I think would be more beneficial and more interesting, it is, thankfully, a very good film and a very honest one. There’s an astonishing amount of suspense that is incorporated into the film even though its ending is (sadly) predictable: it’s not the same “will they/won’t they” tension that exists in sitcoms, exactly. That kind of tension seems to be bent more on what will happen to the Romantic tension. The F Word is more concerned with the Platonic tension and how their feelings and lies (to themselves, primarily) will impact them and other people.
The words “friend zone” are never used in the film, and smartly so. Wallace’s best friend Allan (Adam Driver) lays down the options explicitly: he can either be sleazy (home wreck), conniving (home wreck emotionally), or pathetic (pine from afar). Or, he can get over it. It’s refreshingly honest advice that exists in a genre where honesty is set aside for whatever is the most romantic. And Wallace admits that what matters more to him is that Chantry is in his life at all. He’s unwilling to upset that dynamic. But he’s never pathetic or pitiful for doing so.
The palpable pain we feel is balanced in a logical way: we feel bad that he’s in the situation, but not because he’s not making some romantic proclamation that would cost his friendship with Chantry. He’s not a “Nice Guy”, he’s just a nice person. And we come to understand the nuances in making that kind of decision, without making him some heroic figure. This is balanced by the concessions that Chantry has to make to herself. (Kazan wrote and starred in Ruby Sparks, a film that deconstructed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, so it’s a good sign that she chose a film like The F Word with a relatively intelligent screenplay.) What’s interesting about the development of their chemistry is that after the first night of meeting at a party, the two say goodbye to one another and as Wallace walks away, the camera lingers on Chantry for a second. But that second isn’t injected with an expression from Kazan that says, “Hmm, he’s The One, isn’t he?” It doesn’t feel forced to make that conventional move of forceful attraction, especially after she says to Wallace she has a boyfriend. That simple cut to and cut away from reads as normal, comfortableness. She recognizes that he’s a nice person with whom she might want to hang out with, but it’s devoid of frivolous wistfulness.
What’s nice about this is that Radcliffe and Kazan’s chemistry for much of the film doesn’t really read overtly as “these two belong together”. They are, as Chantry’s sister Dalia (Megan Park) uses to describe Wallace, bantery. A fair amount of the film was improvised, but there’s a sharpness and tightness to the dialogue in the film, where the performers’ line readings and intonations reveal more about their characters. It’ll oscillate from the trembling nervousness to the over-confidence masking the former emotion, but more often than not, it’s fun. The dialogue works as a way for Kazan and Radcliffe to bounce off one another in a nearly screwball manner. Radcliffe’s charm is ever apparent, manifesting in his self-deprecation, and Kazan’s assuredness exists in her further digs at him. It’s lovely and authentic.
The F Word does several things right: it has two appealing leads play against and with one another verbally, it exhibits their infectious platonic chemistry together, and it examines the complexities of desire within that dynamic and what one does it that. It hits its notes and beats expertly, and rarely falters in how it shows the evolution of their interactions with one another. Unfortunately, its ending seems to undercut what makes the film so interesting and bracing. Almost like its characters, it also concedes, but to a formula it spent most of its time fleshing out and investigating with honesty. It’s still good, but it fails to truly transcend the subversive plot it sets up. It spends its time treating a subject that’s normally approached in black and white and adds color to it. David Sedaris wrote, “Real love amounts to withholding the truth, even when you’re offered the perfect opportunity to hurt someone’s feelings.” Alas, its final moments abandon that credo.