John Krasinski’s ‘IF’ Forms a Pack of Imaginary Friends With a Few Charms 

The best family films have that special touch of a director truly comprehending how to evoke a child’s point of view. John Krasinski’s “IF” has brief flashes of that magic but feels like a grown-up trying to fit in with the kids. It’s not a movie that one can easily dismiss considering Krasinski clearly made it with heart. Older viewers might find it nostalgic but younger audience members will miss a livelier feel. There’s plenty of color in this movie and the visual effects don’t overtake every corner of the screen. On that note, Krasinski’s approach, when successful, harkens back to a kind of family movie we don’t see much of anymore. All it really needed was a better narrative thread.

The first thing the story does get right is in making the hero a kid. Bea (Cailey Fleming) is 12-years-old and so has no need for imaginary friends, as she proudly tells her loving grandmother (Fiona Shaw). Bea lost her mother a few years ago to illness, but now her dad (Krasinski) is going to the hospital as well for an unclear heart ailment. While trying to block out her worries, Bea meets her grandmother’s downstairs neighbor, Calvin (Ryan Reynolds). It turns out Calvin oversees a group of imaginary friends or IFs, who have been discarded by people who don’t believe in them anymore. Bea decides to help Calvin help the IFs reconnect with their former human buddies, while potentially helping one of her dad’s younger hospital neighbors find his own imaginary friend. 

Krasinski, who first became known as an actor, deserves some credit for trying something completely different after directing the effective horror films, “A Quiet Place” and “A Quiet Place Part II.” He is aiming for versatility. This material has a convincing innocence to it. Krasinski also wrote the screenplay. Its best element is in the collection of IFs Bea meets. Without overdoing the CGI, the IFs are gentle, funny personas that could be plucked out of a children’s book. Blue (Steve Carell) is a big purple furball prone to clumsiness. Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a ballerina IF, who once belonged to a surprise adult. There is also an ice cube in a walking glass, a unicorn, and a hilarious, melting marshmallow. A canine superhero and a sweet crocodile also appear, with observations about kids we all know (they all tend to be afraid of the dark at some point). Janusz Kamiński, the cinematographer who usually works with Steven Spielberg, keeps everything lit in a bright family-friendly tone.

Where “IF” is left lacking is in how Krasinski never finds a full arc for this story. Putting aside odd story holes (we never learn what specifically is dad’s condition), there’s no real progression. Most of the middle consists of Brea interviewing the IFs and following one or two to their specific, now grown up originator. But the stakes are never raised, there’s never a threat of total failure or the kind of suspense even the lightest family stories use to build excitement. Bea is reduced to being an office interviewer while Calvin is the latest rehash of Ryan Reynolds’ comedic persona, who functions no differently from most of his non-Deadpool roles. The very idea of imaginary friends should give the narrative even more freedom to let loose. It prefers to be quite slow at moments, as if Krasinski set out to prove he didn’t have to make a family movie like all the others. 

Bits of cuteness survive throughout, like an IF who is a nervous floating bubble or an exhibitionist banana. Blue has the potential of being one of those characters who can channel our childhood insecurities. The angle of how imaginary friends can be a mesh of whatever a child is going through when they conjure their buddy is engaging. A moment where Brea rushes down a hospital corridor, expecting the worst, while rushing by all the IFs, also summons some great, genuine heart. This movie just needed more of those moments, along with a story that actually gets it moving. “IF” is afraid of being totally silly, but at times gets too serious. When we are kids, movies can have a particular impact because we are living so attuned to our imaginations. “IF” almost grabs onto some of that magic before getting bogged down by the grown-ups.

IF” releases May 17 in theaters nationwide.