Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Movie Review (Sundance 2024): ‘Will and Harper’ is an Essential and Honest Documentary

Director: Josh Greenbaum
Stars: Will Ferrell, Harper Steele

Synopsis: In this intimate portrayal of friendship, transition, and America, Will Ferrell and his best buddy of thirty years decide to go on a cross-country road trip to explore this new chapter in their relationship.

Legendary comedian Will Ferrell walks into an interview to appear as a talking head. Immediately, he begins to poke fun at the very style of documentary he is in the midst of making. From there, he details the relationship between himself and once SNL head writer, Harper Steele. The two met almost forty years ago, and in that time, have impacted countless lives through comedy. Ferrell comedically points out that if you’ve ever wondered why he would make a certain film or commercial, it’s because Harper was involved. An early champion of Ferrell’s comedy, the two have brought to life some of the most iconic SNL characters ever. Will and Harper are both such funny individuals, and together, they make a fierce duo. And with this new documentary, aptly titled Will & Harper, they are most certainly going to impact countless more lives. Harper is a trans woman, and having transitioned so late in life, she details her worry of renavigating, or possibly even losing, the friendships she has had for the majority of her life. Having not seen each other in quite some time, the two decide to take a road trip with one another. From New York to California, they travel down memory lane, but also down a new path; one in which the next stage of their friendship begins. And it’s absolutely beautiful.

Discussing the trans experience may seem daunting to some. Those with good intentions may feel nervous about hurting somebody they care about. Will & Harper pretty much avoids that entirely. Having been friends for so long, Harper makes it clear that she knows Will would never say anything with the intention of harming or offending her. So immediately, there is a tension lifted, and it makes way for an honesty that is essential to teaching others about Harper’s trans experience. Obviously, the trans experience is varied for countless individuals, but this documentary feels as if it’s a good baseline understanding of some common fears, worries, and joys. The levity among the two is a delight that will keep the viewer laughing consistently. It’s those moments which make the more vulnerable ones all the more impactful. 

For example, Harper goes through her journals from prior to her transition. She details the fact that her then therapist completely discredited the idea that she could be trans. If we can’t even turn to professionals in our time of need, what are we to do? This is one of the many situations in the documentary which emphasizes the essential nature of having a rock-solid support system in your daily life. Will Ferrell has always been beloved by many for his comedy, but the way he uses his fame as a platform to help Harper along her journey makes him that much greater. To think that many would spew venom and hatred both his and Harper’s way is utterly disgusting. At one point, Harper reads some of the vitriolic tweets directed at them upon partaking in a Texas food challenge. This moment, while glossed over a bit, feels essential in the disparate journeys the two are taking on this road trip. For Harper, comments like those aren’t necessarily easy to avoid giving any credence to. 

Personally, I feel that the documentary does a fairly good job of addressing the notion that Will’s fame is used as a bit of a shield. To clarify, that isn’t a bad thing! It’s just easy to imagine a scenario wherein some strangers they meet may mask their true feelings simply because they see Will Ferrell and cameras nearby. But notably, the duo at one point addresses this notion flat-out, and the documentary is all the better for it. The two admit this road trip is not the standard, and is controlled to some extent, but nevertheless, the emotional journey they take is as real as it can get. The two make many stops along the way, but one of the most moving is Harper’s stop back home in Iowa. It’s clear that she had a support system in her sister, who provides such a beautiful statement when Will asks what her reaction was to Harper’s transition. If only more of the country could be so accepting.

Harper spent much of her life traveling cross-country. Either hitchhiking or stopping her truck in the middle of nowhere, she would experience many parts of the country most people on either coast don’t think of or even know about. Unfortunately, many of those parts of the country may think differently of Harper. On their road trip, one wonders if Harper will still be able to feel comfortable, and safe, doing what she loves most: drinking a cheap beer in a dive bar. In interviews after the premiere, Ferrell admitted to having “zero knowledge” of the trans community prior to Harper coming out. While Will & Harper may not leave its audience with a complete understanding of the trans experience, one can only hope that it will leave them with two essentials: to remain a steadfast support for both our loved ones and even those we don’t know. And to not be afraid to ask questions and admit our lack of knowledge or experience, if only to better inform ourselves and improve as people. 

Will & Harper celebrated its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. It was recently acquired by Netflix.

Grade: B+

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