Advertisement

Sundance movie review: Will Ferrell, Harper Steele doc opens trans conversations with laughs

Will Ferrell (L) and Harper Steele take a road trip. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Will Ferrell (L) and Harper Steele take a road trip. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Most trans documentaries are still considered niche. Will & Harper, which screened Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival, is more accessible to cis viewers thanks to the participation of Will Ferrell, and familiarity with him.

Harper Steele was a writer for Saturday Night Live and wrote sketches for Ferrell such as "Oops, I Crapped My Pants." During the pandemic, Harper decided to transition and notified loved ones via e-mail.

Having not seen each other in person since Steele's transition, Steele and Farrell embark on a 16-day road trip across the country to sites Steele used to visit prior to her transition.

Whether dealing with trans issues, documentary tropes or the road trip itself, Ferrell keeps things light. Will & Harper has enough jokes to qualify as a Will Ferrell comedy.

Steele is a comedy writer too so she can keep up with Ferrell, but more of her humor comes out in her writing. For example, insisting her personality won't change, she wrote, "instead of being an [expletive], I'll be a b****."

Will Ferrell stars in the documentary "Will & Harper." Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Will Ferrell stars in the documentary "Will & Harper." Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Ferrell and Steele still continue their old disputes, such as Steele's taste for Natural Light and Old Milwaukee beer.

Steele and Ferrell discuss trans issues together, and with people they meet along the way, including Steele's children and sister, supportive locals and tourists. Unsupportive people are minimal, but they don't completely avoid them.

Harper Steele transitioned during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Harper Steele transitioned during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Entering an Oklahoma bar filled with confederate flags and Trump banners is scary, but Steele finds a crowd there. A Texas steakhouse turns into a social media pile-on for anti-trans people.

The film cuts away but after they leave, Steele and Ferrell discuss what a scene the steakhouse turned into. At that point, Steele reads other tweets commenting on their previous stops, so it is something she faces.

Will Ferrell and Harper Steele visit the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Will Ferrell and Harper Steele visit the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

It's also why she made the trip, to see if her old road trip haunts would still welcome her. Some do, some don't.

Steele makes it easy for people to ask her questions. She welcomes them as long as they come from a place of genuine curiosity and love.

Will Ferrell (L) and Harper Steele enjoy some down time on the road. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Will Ferrell (L) and Harper Steele enjoy some down time on the road. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Real talk includes asking Ferrell if he was afraid of saying the wrong things to Steele. It gets as personal as discussions about whether further surgery is necessary to complete the transition, and what type of person she'd like to date now.

Steele gives Ferrell some tips for how he can support her when people misgender her or otherwise make her a spectacle.

Traveling with Ferrell also makes the duo a spectacle, especially at public events like a Pacers/Sixers game. This takes some focus off Steele, but also forces Ferrell to be "on" when he really wants to be a supportive friend.

None of this is preachy, however. At its heart, Will & Harper is a road trip comedy, with one famous comedian and another co-star who's a behind-the-scenes showbiz person. Other SNL cast members also cameo.

Ferrell mocks some of his less successful movies, bringing one costume on the road with them. He gets emotional too, both at seeing some hostile reactions to Steele and feeling guilt that he let her down.

Transitioning is a unique process for everyone but there are some common tools that can help families and friends be more supportive than not. Will & Harper is a touching journey with two friends sharing laughs that can help start more conversations amongst people Steele and Ferrell will never meet.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.