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‘I Wish You All the Best’ Review: Alexandra Daddario and Lena Dunham in Tommy Dorfman’s Sweet Nonbinary Coming-of-Age Comedy

When Ben DeBacker (Corey Fogelmanis), the nonbinary protagonist of Tommy Dorfman’s charming directorial debut I Wish You All the Best, decides to come out to their parents, the results are disastrous.

The conversation is rendered in flashes, adding a suspenseful layer to the melancholic moment. We see Ben reviewing notes on an index card; we watch them shuffle nervously to the kitchen. Before we know it, Ben is calling his estranged sister Hannah (Alexandra Daddario) for help. The North Carolina teen is crouched in a corner of a gas station grocery store with no shoes and holes in their socks. It’s only when Hannah shows up — worried and out of breath — that the gravity of the situation sets in.

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Premiering at SXSW, I Wish You All the Best follows Ben as they recover from the emotional trauma of coming out to their parents and adjust to a new life with their sister and her husband (Cole Sprouse). Dorfman wrote the screenplay, which she adapted from the non-binary author Mason Deaver’s bestselling novel of the same name. I Wish You All the Best is a heartfelt ode to the experiences of nonbinary teens that doesn’t only prioritize the most disturbing experiences. It has the tenor of a show like Netflix’s Heartstopper and offers enough charm — much like Josephine Decker’s musical romance The Sky Is Everywhere — to overcome the clunkier parts of its portrait of adolescence.

It takes time for Ben to adapt to the new living situation with Hannah, who also suffered under their parents’ conservatism. In an effort to help Ben feel more comfortable, Hannah enrolls them in a new school, takes them shopping for clothes and, with the help of her husband, helps them get a part-time job. Soon, the secrets and mutual awkwardness plaguing their relationship are replaced with an endearing effort to bridge gaps in communication and understanding.

Although Fogelmanis, Daddario and Sprouse give solid individual performances, the dynamics of their family relationship rarely overcomes a certain stiffness. Part of that has to do with the film’s uneven pacing. In trying to cover so much ground, Dorfman doesn’t leave enough time for the relationships to play out fully on screen. The result, at times, tends toward the staccato rhythms and sentimentality of primetime television shows like This Is Us.

Ben’s experiences at school and their relationships with an eccentric art teacher (a scene-stealing Lena Dunham) and their crush Nathan (Miles Gutierrez-Riley) make for a welcome change in tone and direction. At their previous high school, Ben tried to be invisible, but that proves more difficult in this new town where people take a genuine interest in the teenager. Nathan, an extroverted bisexual who coordinates their nail color with their outfits, folds Ben into his friend group immediately. The matter of why Nathan is drawn to Ben could have used more exploration, but Fogelmanis and Gutierrez-Riley have a sweet chemistry that saves their relationship from contrivance. As Nathan and Ben get closer, Dorfman takes their intimacy seriously, staging scenes that recognize the depth and reality of these characters’ desires.

When not daydreaming about Nathan, Ben spends a lot of time with Ms. Lyons. Dunham is pitch-perfect in this role, as though she was born to be the eccentric art teacher who shepherds the shy, the anxious and the self-proclaimed misfits to self-acceptance. The Sharp Stick director steals nearly all the scenes she’s featured in by deploying her signature anxious-spiral-as-confessional-humor. She also shapes her character into someone with real heart, an administrator who recognizes Ben’s gender limbo without condescending to the teen.

Dorfman imbues I Wish You All the Best with Ms. Lyons’ ethos. The film wears its sincerity proudly and, despite its imperfections, has a sense of its purpose. Dorfman’s direction relies on intimate close-ups and only really differentiates itself from the traditional mechanics of a smaller-screen endeavor when it chronicles Ben’s emotional life. To capture the texture of this fraught terrain, Dorfman relies on the teen’s changing wardrobe (costume design is by David Tabbert) and uses wider shots to reflect Ben’s comfort with their surroundings. In these moments, the teenager, once crouched in the corner of a mini-mart, stands tall and moves with the ease of a person running into freedom’s embrace.

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