Will & Harper (Sundance) Review

Connie Queline

Will & Harper (Sundance) Review

Will Ferrell frontlines this big-hearted, warm documentary about two friends reconnecting after one comes out as trans.

PLOT: Will Ferrell learns that one of his closest friends and collaborators is now trans. Unsure of the ground rules in the next stage of their relationship, the two drive from New York to Los Angeles together and reconnect. 

REVIEW: Will & Harper is a gentle, often hilarious documentary about two friends reconnecting after one comes out as trans. The fact that one of the friends is Will Ferrell made it a must-see for me at Sundance. But, it has a lot of resonance beyond its showbiz aspects, with it a nuanced portrait of a life in transition. It starts with essentially being about how the world views Ferrell’s friend, Harper, but eventually, it becomes more about how she views herself.

It’s a complex question because Harper Steele made her transition later in life, with her being sixty-one as the movie starts. She’s interesting, having been the writer on many of Ferrell’s best-loved comedies and SNL skits. As Ferrell mentions in the intro, anything that he did in his career that was unusual, such as Eurovision, his Spanish film Casa de mi Padre, The Spoils of Babylon, or the Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption, was written by Harper. She also wrote The Ladies Man and worked on Saturday Night Live for twenty years. That she and Ferrell are so funny makes this an uplifting, good-hearted documentary that’s empathetic toward everyone.

One of the best bits in the movie follows Harper as she enters a dive bar in Oklahoma. We learn that she’s always enjoyed visiting seedier places, and she’s not sure how well a trans person will be accepted. As such, when she walks into the bar and sees a Confederate Flag hanging next to a Trump for President and anti-Joe Biden posters, we assume the worst. Instead, the customers are universally kind and accepting, even before Will Ferrell shows up. 

Somewhat less uplifting is an episode where the two visit a steakhouse in Texas and receive an awkward reception. Ferrell himself makes an ill-advised decision to make a show of the event, donning a Sherlock Holmes costume and holding court, leading to the two being observed as if they were in a fishbowl. 

That makes Will & Harper effective, showing how people across all political and social spectrums react to the trans community. To its credit, no one is especially vicious to Harper’s face outside of a sequence where they read cruel tweets. She’s misgendered a few times, but it’s pretty much always by accident, and she never takes it personally – nor does Ferrell. They don’t go around lecturing people; they’re just honestly interested in how people genuinely feel – and for the most part, everyone they meet face to face is tolerant and means well.

Of course, the fact that Will Ferrell is around for the whole thing skews the experience, as it’s unlikely anyone would disrespect this beloved entertainer to his face. But, as the Oklahoma episode proves, even those Harper herself prejudges as intolerant may not be so. It’s an essential lesson for everyone to remember, as political division often binds us to the fact that people are people.

As such, Will & Harper is a hopeful, uplifting film that feels like a story of our time. Director Josh Greenbaum includes plenty of Will Ferrell schtick (he once again takes his clothes off for comic effect) and starry cameos from their real friends (including Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, and Will Fortee, among others). Still, he doesn’t overload the film with comedy. Ultimately, it’s a slice of life that will resonate for many of us. 

will and harper review

8

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