THE STORY – When Will Ferrell discovers that his close friend of 30 years has come out as a trans woman, the two decide to embark on a cross-country road trip to process this new stage of their relationship in an intimate portrait of friendship, transition, and America.
THE CAST – Will Ferrell & Harper Steele
THE TEAM – Josh Greenbaum (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 114 Minutes
Documentaries have long been used to make a political point or to try and sway people to a different perspective. And, on the surface, it may appear to some (especially those who wouldn’t be interested in examining their own biases) that “Will & Harper,” the fantastic documentary from director Josh Greenbaum, is exclusively didactic. While it does serve as an examination into the many ways that intolerance has poisoned certain Americans, its most significant achievement is how it portrays two old friends as they experience a life-changing journey together. That display of humanity may just do the trick to win over unsuspecting hearts and minds.
The titular “Will” is Will Ferrell, and “Harper” is Harper Steele; the pair met at “Saturday Night Live” during Ferrell’s tenure as a cast member. Steele served as a writer on the variety sketch show for 20 years, and the two have remained friends long since both last clocked out of 30 Rock. Then, at 61 years old, Steele came out to friends and family as a trans woman. Her announcement was met with warm acceptance by those closest to her. But, as the film delves into, some of her favorite things to do in her free time were to go to small towns in the middle of nowhere, meet people at dive bars, and attend sporting events. As a trans woman, she understandably feels uncomfortable returning to these remnants of her pre-transition life. As such, Ferrell and Steel decide to go on a cross-country road trip from New York City to Los Angeles, visiting locations that Steele might be hesitant to check out if a camera crew didn’t surround her with a movie star by her side.
If this sounds like a potentially stressful look into the hardships commonly faced by certain members of society, don’t worry. Yes, there are one or two occasions where things get a little dicey for the pair, but otherwise, they’re met with friendliness and, at worst, slightly invasive curiosity. But, the instances where they encounter resistance subtly highlight just how much antagonism trans folk face regularly. If this is how one trans woman is treated while being filmed by a Hollywood crew, how does the average non-cisgender individual fare on their own?
But, the absolute joy of the film comes from watching Ferrell and Steele casually interact, constantly trying to make each other laugh. There’s such a specific happiness that comes from watching two old friends one-upping each other with increasingly ridiculous comedic bits, some of which they carry over multiple state lines. These moments of levity only emphasize the times when the pair delve into more serious, emotional conversations. Their bond is unquestionable, and they clearly make each other into better people. Along the way, they run into some familiar faces from their days at SNL, including Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, and Molly Shannon. Kristen Wiig is even recruited via FaceTime to write a theme song for the road trip, which she performs over the end credits. Her ditty, “Harper and Will Go West,” is a hilarious and genuinely moving summary of the pair’s adventure.
Director Josh Greenbaum smartly uses a hands-off approach while capturing Ferrell and Steele on their journey. There are no talking head interviews, and there’s minimal archival footage. Instead, he does what many documentaries avoid doing: he simply documents. Some of the best scenes come from just watching the duo through the windshield of Steele’s Jeep as they make each other laugh, cry, and come closer together. His camera also perfectly captures the majesty of America’s middle, South, and West, emphasizing the idea that Ferrell and Steele are, at the end of the day, mere citizens of a country that has so much beauty and potential, populated by people who often lose sight of that.
“Will & Harper” is an effective, emotionally impactful, and hysterical portrait of a decades-spanning friendship. The pair have so much to learn from each other, and like a souvenir from a gas station, this film is worth treasuring long after the journey ends.