Written by: Hannah Tran | January 30th, 2024
Will & Harper (Josh Greenbaum, 2024) 4½ out of 5 stars*
For a festival known for its boundary-pushing documentaries, this year’s Sundance slate has been particularly impressive. One of the standouts was a simple and understated road-trip film about Will Ferrell and his longtime collaborator and friend Harper Steele, who came out as a trans woman during the pandemic. From director Josh Greenbaum, whose debut film Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar was a surprising delight for me, comes an entirely different testament to the power of friendship. As Steele reintroduces herself to the Americana locales that once posed no threat to her identity, the bond between her and Ferrell—and their navigation of their changing relationship—is told with immense honesty and empathy.
There is an immediate sense of intimacy to Ferrell and Steele’s conversations. Despite their apparent nervousness about entering into a new phase of their friendship, humor guides them as they remember old inside jokes and create new ones. The closeness that can only be found in such an old friendship allows for a unique openness in their interactions. Ferrell’s relatable curiosity allows for extremely important conversations to be had with care. Because of this, Harper is able to share her experience with the world as a conversation with a trusted friend rather than a public declaration.
Because of Ferrell’s fame, there’s also an abundance of cameos from a handful of Saturday Night Live’s finest, which makes for some of the most memorable and lighthearted scenes. The film is very aware of his celebrity, and Ferrell is often self-deprecating about it. The documentary also acknowledges how it can be used as a shield or, reversely, make them a greater target of unwelcome attention and online hatred. The filmmakers never downplay the tragedy of these experiences and are transparent about this double-edged sword, but if Ferrell’s fame is what allows this powerful personal account to be seen by many, it is clearly an important tool.
For the large majority of the film, however, the most emotionally impactful moments come from the kindness of strangers. The unexpected reactions and outright support from certain people they meet along the way are reminders of the beauty of humanity and the impact of one-on-one conversations. Every second of Will & Harper either makes you want to smile or cry. While it may be a very unique framing of the trans experience, universal emotions run through it. And the classic story of friendship at its heart makes for an essential, warm, and life-affirming American odyssey.
[Will & Harper just premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the Spotlight Program.]
*Starting in 2024, all Film Festival Today reviews will now be rated out of 5 stars, rather than the previous 4-star system.