I attended the Sarasota Film Festival recently. "If Only" was the opening night film there, but I passed on the initial screening. However, it generated great buzz from those who saw it, so I caught the second screening of the film at the festival, and I must say I was stunned at how good this film was.
Emily (Jennifer Love Hewitt) and Peter (Paul Nicholls, British newcomer) are a young couple living together in London. Peter is a British businessman, Emily, an American, is an aspiring singer. The film opens with some sweet, light hearted comedy as we are introduced to the couple. However, when the two have issues many young couples deal with, they are left on a bad note when suddenly tragedy strikes and their relationship is ended. It is very hard to get in to more detail without giving away too much of the film, but let's just say, we are treated to a touching dramatic story of a romance as we see what a unique opportunity could bring and how we should never take for granted what we say or do in relationships because of what can happen in life.
When you run in to a film of this nature, you always wonder about whether the film will try too hard to pull the heart strings to manipulate an emotional reaction, but the movie is so great at avoiding that. The film is genuinely touching with outstanding, intelligent writing, moving and serious with nice sprinkles of humor when appropriate, and very well paced direction. The acting, to me though, is the biggest shocker. I'd never heard of Paul Nicholls before, but he is a very charming presence. Another reviewer mentioned Hugh Grant, and that is spot on. He is a very charismatic young actor and could develop in to a star down the road. Tom Wilkinson, a staple in very strong independent films ("In the Bedroom" being his favorite of mine though "The Full Monty" has always been near the top of my list as well), graces the movie with another good performance in a supporting role. The biggest standout to me though has to be Jennifer Love Hewitt. I've seen a few of her films, and while she was attractive and charismatic at times, I was fairly unimpressed with her ability as she was usually glossy and two dimensional. I had major doubts about her ability to actually be a lead in a good dramatic film, which is why I skipped this before the great festival buzz, but I have to say, she was perfect. Her physical attributes are more subdued in this film, sure she is pretty, but she has to actually carry this film on her skills as an actress and she pulls it off. She shows range, nails some very emotional scenes, and does something that is the key to pulling off this type of role, which is make you care about what happens to her character. Her happiness comes across as genuine, as does her excitement at a major event that occurs in the film, as does her pain. The performances by Hewitt and Nicholls are what make the climax of the film so dramatic and emotional. This film should advance Hewitt's career beyond the type of run of the mill Hollywood fare that she has based her movie career on so far. She shows great potential as a good leading lady in more serious films which, frankly, is the last thing I expected going in to this film.
"If Only" is independently produced, it is not a studio film, which is why it was showing at the festival as it is making the rounds looking for U.S. distribution. As is often the case, these types of films allow the discove ry of great newcomers (Nicholls) and the chance for more established actors to stretch themselves outside their previous mainstream work (Hewitt) in hopes of making a small film that beats out the major studio work with quality in writing, acting and directing and this film has accomplished that goal. I hope that this film finds the success it deserves down the road; it was the surprise, and treat, of the festival for me and many others in attendance. It is a beautiful love story and an extremely effective film at keeping you involved in the development of the characters for the full two hours. Thumbs up from me and keep an eye out for it.