Sundance 2024: ‘Will & Harper’ is a Wonderful Doc About Two Friends
by Alex Billington
January 23, 2024
There is an outstanding documentary film that just premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival called Will & Harper, featuring the iconic actor / comedian Will Ferrell and his friend Harper Steele. It’s a road trip film, following the two as they embark upon a journey across the United States of America, from New York City to California. However, this film is much more important that just a road trip story. Will learned that his good friend had recently transitioned into a woman, and he didn’t quite know how to deal with the situation properly. So he proposed this idea to her and they decide to get a documentary film crew to follow them along as they talk and drive and have a good time. It turned out wonderful. It feels like Will & Harper is a watershed moment for trans visibility and allyship. It may actually cause real change. It’s an emotionally honest, beautiful, authentic, uplifting film about two good friends learning to grow and explore themselves together. The audience gave this an instant standing ovation at the end – not a common thing at Sundance.
Will & Harper is directed by filmmaker Josh Greenbaum, a comedy director behind the other films Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and Strays most recently. There is a camera strapped to the front of the old Jeep that Harper brings along to drive around in, and there’s also a doc crew following them and shooting additional shots. It’s not exactly cinéma vérité but it all seems authentic. Will wants to go on this road trip to spend time with his friend, who he first met 27 years before while working on “Saturday Night Live”. He wants to learn more about her transition, and ask her a bunch of a questions that you’re not supposed to ask trans people. There’s a clear narrative within the film that feels like they do want to let this friendship and Will’s openness act as an example for bigoted people who just can’t accept letting people be who they really are deep down. It’s also a chance for everyone to see how easy this acceptance can be. There are many conversations in the film about exactly this notion, as they drive around to various American cities, eat food (many cans of Pringles ha), and meet up with lots of other people, including old friends and Harper’s family.
It is unfair to criticize this film with the claim that it doesn’t do enough to properly capture the experience of trans people living in America right now (as conservatives make awful moves against them). This isn’t what the film needs to be, and it isn’t what it’s trying to be, nor does it have to be the definitive film to show this. Instead, it is simply about the relationship and connection between Will and Harper, and it is much more important that they capture this authentically and show their beautiful friendship. This is where the film’s great power to change is found and also where the film truly succeeds. It’s an extraordinary documentary because it is so enjoyable and amusing and delightful to watch. There is an interesting question surrounding whether Will Ferrell, an extremely talented actor, is performing for the camera in some scenes. And there is an intriguing amount of scenes that involve his fame and the support / money he has as a way of providing a safe and clear path for Harper to travel down as she steps out further into the world with her real self on display. None of these questions take away from the film’s success, they add more depth to the conversation.
As expected when spending time with Will Ferrell and a comedy writer, there are hilarious scenes scattered throughout. The best jokes are spontaneous and real, genuine and clever, and will leave you with a gigantic smile. It’s complimented by an exceptional soundtrack of classic road trip songs that make this whole film a proper cinematic experience. There are heartfelt moments, sad moments, funny moments, happy moments, all of these experiences that are important to living a well-rounded life. And all of it feels like it fits so nicely together within this easy-going narrative package that Josh Greenbaum and his team have crafted. Of course there’s tons of footage left on the cutting room floor, though what they do show us is pretty much perfect. There’s not much I can think of that would make this film any better. It’s as touching and as rousing as any film can be. And it has the power to change lives. It’s told with such openness, with such a big heart, without any desire to make it feel like anything but a celebration of love and friendship. It’s a triumph in every way.
Alex’s Sundance 2024 Rating: 10 out of 10
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