WHAT IF IT WORKS NEW website RATE: 9/10 review by Carolyn Newall
What If It Works. Written and directed by Romi Tower.
Australian filmmakers have a long tradition of handling mental illness sensitively. The first I can recall was the film Tim in 1979 which was based on a Colleen McCullough novel and starred the very young Mel Gibson, then there was Malcolm in 1986 starring Colin Friels. However, for breadth and depth What If It Works, due to hit cinemas on October 12th, is the best by a country mile. There are sound reasons for this which I will get into later.
It is important to note that this is absolutely a love story. The comedy, of which there is a great deal, comes from the protagonists themselves. That is to say, you are never invited to laugh at them, only with them.
The lead actors, Anna Samson (Grace) and Luke Ford (Adrian), deliver incredibly understated, piercingly realistic representations of the characters they play. This is a lot of work for Samson as Grace is only one of her personalities. Grace suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) and we are told has 10 people who live inside her. We don’t meet them all, but the main two we do meet demand that Samson stretch both her talent and her timing. The segways from one character to another are ultimately believable. ‘G’ is the character causing artist Grace the most grief. G is sexually confrontational and artistically productive while Grace is having trouble painting. What is worse, she is actually aware of everything that G says and does. This is not the usual understanding of DID. Much of the tension in the film comes at those moments when Grace is apologising to Adrian for G’s bad behaviour. Will he be able to get past his own limitations and manage these situations?
Much of the value of the film is in exactly this. The audience get to see just how hard it is for people with these conditions to navigate everyday situations and relationships that most of us take for granted. And it is not hard because they are in any way less smart than the rest of us. On the contrary, Adrian may be massively OCD, but it certainly has not affected either his intellect or his sense of humour. We discover he is a postdoctoral student with a keen understanding of his condition and how it impacts on those around him. Rather than being depressed by this he presents a contagious positivity which denies the possibility of stigma. Only in the very first minutes of the film are we faced with a societal difficulty in managing his disorder as we see him attempt a compulsory residential therapy program. He doesn’t last and there is no indication in the writing that this is a bad thing.
Holding Adrian and Grace together and providing a nexus for the story is their psychiatrist Dr. Karren Di Scala (Kaarin Fairfax). Apart from their first meeting in her room we are not encouraged to believe that Dr Di Scala is cognisant of the growing relationship between her patients. None of the drama is related to that story arc, it is just there as something normal and routine.
That this is the work of a first time director, Romi Trower, is surprising but not unprecedented. Think Nadia Tass and previously mentioned Malcolm. We have been told that Trower has knowledge of both these conditions through family, but that would not be enough in itself to maintain the critical balance of comedy and pathos that is achieved in What If It Works. The script is understated, funny, clever and rarely cliched and the directing is the same. Trower deserves every one of the many awards and accolades the film has already collected and I really hope it gets the box-office returns it deserves. As a Melbourne native there was the temptation to try and identify the many laneways and other recognizable locations. It was nice to see the familiar trams and landmarks and I guess that is how New Yorkers and San Franciscans feel when they see their city on the big screen. It is kinda cool.
My favourite quote came from Adrian on finding out about Grace’s DID: ‘If a guy didn’t have any friends it would make a great package deal.’ This is a small film with a huge heart and I encourage you to go and see it. You will feel much better about life.