Film reviews and more since 2009

IF (2024) review

Dir. John Krasinski

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

2024 has been the year of imaginary friend cinema, and I might be the only critic who found merit in John Wadlow’s horror film Imaginary, Peter Farrelly’s hilariously funny Ricky Stanicky, and now John Krasinski’s flawed yet admirable IF.

We can talk about how IF suffers from what I might now bill as “the Haunted Mansion problem” of being too adult for kids yet often too “kiddie” for adults. We can also talk about how the film’s plot probably should’ve been the material it saves for the epilogue. But what I’d rather talk about is the way this film takes notes from J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls and Cartoon Network’s Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends in acknowledging these figments of children’s imaginations not merely as companions, but as coping mechanisms for a cruel and unjust world.

IF revolves around Bea (Cailey Fleming), a girl whose mother has died and her father played by writer/director Krasinski — is in the hospital awaiting open heart surgery. Consequently, Bea has to move in with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), and frets over the possibility that she’ll have to go through the grieving process all over again should her father not survive his operation. Take it from someone who lost his mother abruptly; I was a nervous wreck the day my father went for a colonoscopy.

Enter her reclusive neighbor, Calvin (Ryan Reynolds in a delightfully muted performance), who sees creatures nobody else can see. His introduction comes after Bea starts seeing strange characters, such as a large, furry purple monster named Blue (voiced by Steve Carell), and a cutesy insect named Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). The logic in IF is as follows: when children outgrow their imaginary friends (known as “IFs,” get it?) those friends don’t vanish. They wander the world as ghosts, so to speak, waiting to be “imagined” by a new human. Calvin detests the life he leads, having to play matchmaker for a plethora of lonely, reject “IFs.” Bea helps him in the process.

Consider how Blue’s Clues‘ Steve Burns sent us 90s babies a profoundly earnest video message two years ago, and the warm fuzzies that inspired. During a pivotal, extended sequence, IF looks to do the same with Bea, Calvin, and Blue looking to surprise Blue’s old friend, Jeremy (Bobby Moynihan), who is nervously sweating a job interview. Like asking someone out for a date, Blue misses his first couple opportunities to inspire Jeremy with his reappearance, but still somehow finds the right time to do so. The film’s epilogue shows many humans being reacquainted with their imaginary friends. It’s then we realize that IF probably should’ve used this idea as the premise all along.

Mull this question over, if you will: if your imaginary friend could see you now, would he/she/it be proud of you? If you feel like you haven’t accomplished much, I bet they would still believe in you. My imaginary friend up until I was about 10-years-old was Harry Potter. Yes, the Harry Potter. I still don’t believe I’ve accomplished as much as him.

Where IF succeeds is in its pathos. It earns its tears in the third act, as Bea must finally address her father’s operation after being so busily distracted helping Calvin with his work. During this time, however, she’s gotten connected with numerous imaginary friends, including an art teacher who looks like Larry David, a glass of ice water, a gummy bear, and a green ball of slime. These folks have given her a break from the messy and unkind world, but her addressing the emotional elephant in the room is as stirring as anything this side of Bridge to Terabithia.

There’s also a sweet little boy played by Alan Kim (Minari), who lies in a hospital bed, injured, and without even a working TV. At one point, Bea and Calvin try to get pair him up with an imaginary friend. The connection he shares with Bea during passing encounters at the hospital are sweet and childlike. His presence is inspiring, though the story of his injuries suggest a deeper, darker subtext with which Krasinski doesn’t want to flirt.

IF is something of a mess, but its emotional beats soar, as do its performances and seamless merging of human characters with animated figures in the real world. It should be the winner of the most mismarketed film of the year, with a trailer that suggests all-out lunacy for a film that harbors a lot of very real emotional complexities. When I started writing film reviews, an unwritten rule I established was if a film made me tear up, I am obligated to give it a positive review. It’s not an easy response to achieve. Thankfully, in this case, it’s warranted, not manipulated.

NOTE: IF is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Starring: Starring: Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, Fiona Shaw, John Krasinski, Alan Kim, and Bobby Moynihan. Voiced by: Steve Carell, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Louis Gossett Jr, Awkwafina, Emily Blunt, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon, Keegan-Michael Key, and Richard Jenkins. Directed by: John Krasinski.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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