Sundance Film Review: Will & Harper
Sundance Film Review: Will & Harper
Director: Josh Greenbaum
Transphobia is on the rise in America. 2023 was yet another dangerous year for trans and gender nonconforming people in the US and, at the time of writing this, an anti-trans bill has just passed through the Utah House in the 2024 legislative session, which only convened one week ago. With so much hate in the air, it’s not always easy to see the truth: trans joy is real, life-saving and beautiful.
Josh Greenbaum‘s Will & Harper is a documentary that follows Saturday Night Live alumni, and best friends of thirty-years, Will Ferrell and Harper Steele as they embark on a cross-country road trip. While the pitch is familiar, and soundtrack may be road-trip-trope-y with its classic American rock songs, Will & Harper puts new motivation behind the Great American Road Trip. Along the way, the two friends explore their shifting dynamic through questions and dive bars following Harper’s coming out as a trans woman.
In years prior, Steele was known for her questionable taste in beers, bars and making friends in the lowliest of places all across the continent. Now that she’s visibly trans, she feels less safe in these spaces where she once found joy and excitement. Following Steele’s email to him, Ferrell felt that returning to these spaces with her could open the door a little wider for his friend, as well as for his own questions.
Their trip is predictably delightful. How could it not, with one of America’s favorite comedy stars (Ferrell) and a former SNL head writer (Steele) behind the wheel? However, it’s not all fun and quips. Steele is vulnerable about her experience, sharing journal entries from her darkest hours and taking Ferrell to a house she bought with the express purpose of confining her true self in the middle of nowhere, California. Ferrell is also raw with emotion, particularly after a miscalculated bit in a Texas steakhouse draws a nightmare of attention to Steele. Along the way, both subjects are able to explore their anxieties: Ferrell is able to ask questions openly and Steele is able to explore the world as her true self for the first time.
The story doesn’t complicate itself , sticking to Steele’s experiences (though she does reiterate a few times how privileged she is compared to others) and I think it’s better for it. Steele, Ferrell, Greenbaum and all involved are well aware that the Elf star’s fame will get butts in seats and they’re telling their story in the right way to appeal to the wide audience that Ferrell’s name will draw. The team is also aware that Ferrell’s presence is both a blessing and a curse on Steele’s experience, either drawing attention to or away from her, and takes precautions. However, the main goal is to show how much happier Steele is following her transition, and it works. “When I said [Harper] out loud, my whole body felt warm,” she says when describing how she chose her name. However, Will & Harper doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. As Steele wrote in her coming out email to Ferrell, “It’s really going to be slow and awkward and terrible and joyful.” Those last three words may as well be a tagline for the documentary, as well, as Steele encounters misgendering, online harassment and, most importantly, a gorgeous trip with a close friend.
I can’t express enough how much joy comes through at times. Steele is a bright spot on screen as she scoffs at Ferrell’s dad jokes and spontaneously rides a passerby’s unicycle in heels. Toward the end, the two friends launch massive fireworks into the desert sky with glee, and I couldn’t help but think of how Steele described her true self as “exploding” out from inside her. What is trans joy if not a bright explosion of suppressed light, energy and fire?
Will & Harper tasks itself with making sure its hopefully wide audience (the film has yet to be picked up for distribution) sees that the thunderous thrill of being trans is nothing to be afraid of, and delivers the message with enough jokes, tears and SNL cameos to ensure a smooth landing in the open hearts and minds of curious Americans…if they’re willing to put down their pitchforks and bullshit bills. –Max Bennion