A film review by Craig J. Koban April 5, 2020

BANANA SPLIT jjj

2020, R, 88 mins.

 

Hannah Marks as April  /  Liana Liberato as Clara  /  Dylan Sprouse as Nick  /  Addison Riecke as Agnes  /  Haley Ramm as Sally  /  Jessica Hecht as Susan  /  Ben Konigsberg as Mordecai  /  Meagan Kimberly Smith as Molly

Directed by Benjamin Kasulke  /  Written by Hannah Marks and Joey Power

 

 

 

 

I would need an infinite number of hands to count how many high school romcoms that I've seen in my 45 years on the planet, especially ones that involve multiple girls fighting over the affections of one hunky male suitor. 

BANANA SPLIT attempts to subvert many of this genre's most tired and overused clichés - while still adhering to a few of them - in terms of its relationship arcs.  In its case, this film provides for an intriguing twist on traditional female friendship/high school comedies, and one that feels infinitely more grounded and lived in than most.  Like last year's BOOKSMART (the film that this one will most obviously and easily be compared to), BANANA SPLIT is less about exploring the ties between two young teenage lovers than it is about the intimate levels of closeness between females outside of their ties to males.  So many high school romcoms are obsessively focused with which boy the preening girl will end up with.  BANANA SPLIT has none of that and instead hones in on the platonic sisterhood ties that girls try to maintain. 

The script was co-written by one of the film's stars, Hannah Marks, which she started years ago when she was 18-years-old and chronicled her own real life encounters with the new girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend and how she become close with the former.  One thing that puts BANANA SPLIT proudly on a recent short list of other successful teen centric films (like THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, BOOKSMART, EIGHTH GRADE) is how it displays a keen understanding of the mindsets of its adolescent characters.  It really dives into the warts and all microcosm of teenage life, which involves, yes, ample partying, drinking, drug use, and aggressive usage of social media.  However, that's not to say that BANANA SPLIT portrays its characters as hedonistic, selfish, and uncaring simpletons.  Contrastingly, the film has its finger squarely on the pulse of what makes its youthful characters tick, and thoroughly explores all of their hidden layers, fragilities, and uncertainties.  Even when the film careens down some derivative and obligatory turns, it's the essence of these characters that feel tangible and relatable, which greatly helps it to stand proudly on its own two feet in a very crowded pack.

 

 

Marks plays April in the film, who's shown in the opening stages of the story in an obligatory loving and nurturing relationship with the hunky Nick (Dylan Sprouse), and during these opening stages - done with great expositional quickness via a solid montage - we see the pair blossom from their first meet-cute and kiss and into a fully formed and inseparable couple.  However, we also begin to see the cracks form in their romance during this sequence, and the once rosy and happy go lucky pair are on a course for splitsville.  When the two finally and tearfully break up with one another, April is left to deal with being single during that hard period between high school graduation and her attending college in the fall.  Adding insult to absolute injury, April is emotionally ruined when she discovers that Nick has quickly rebounded with a resident high school hottie in Clara (Liana Liberato), and jealousy soon rears its ugly head.

Now, in just about any other high school romcom, April would be plotting a scheme of ultimate revenge against her former boyfriend and his newest girlfriend would be painted as an evil caricature worthy of being defeated and humiliated.  It's at this point when BANANA SPLIT truly lays its actual cards on the table and becomes so refreshingly different and unexpected.  During one night April attends a raging house party, one that Clara is also at.  Instead of vengefully confronting her, though, April and Clara have a quiet and awkward moment together, and through casual and polite conversations the two begin to actually hit it off.  In any other movie, these two would be the worst of enemies.  In BANANA SPLIT, they confide in each other and become BFFS.  More compellingly, they decide to keep their budding friendship a well kept secret from Nick and even enact some serious rules: (1) They can't talk about him while together, (2) they can't talk about their own friendship with him at any time, and (3) No social media pinpointing their new friendship (they hilariously use fake names - George Clooney and Brad Pitt - in on-line chat forums and messaging apps). 

This core dynamic is fascinating to me, mostly because BANANA SPLIT all but does away with chronicling a potential three way love triangle between Nick, April, and Clara and instead focuses squarely on the friendship of the latter two behind the former's back.  The film uses the standard accoutrements of the romcom genre and finds novel ways to turn them upside down on their heads, and I admired how much the script places prominence in showing the blossoming bond between women outside of their links to men.  There's great amusing pleasure to be had here in sequences involving April and Clara not only confiding in one another with their own deep seeded concerns and anxieties, but also in how they sneak around to ensure that Nick is none the wiser.  Better yet, I truly liked what they did with the Clara character, who could have easily and lazily been written as a one note antagonist to April in a lesser script, but here she's a congenial spirit and positive influence on April.  And they both love each other's company, despite the elephant in the room that cast a large shadow over both of them.

The dramatic and emotional veracity contained within BANANA SPLIT is always apparent, even when some of the colorful dialogue seems a bit too cleverly forced for its own good at times.  April and Clara are never presented as stock character types, and the psychological underpinnings of their relationship is always fascinating: April is wounded and confused by being dumped by Nick, but finds solace and in the warm hearted and understanding Clara...who's...dating Nick.  If there was a weak angle to the film then it would be in the presentation of Nick himself, who's mostly just an oblivious pothead that has no idea what's going on around him.  Still, BANANA SPLIT isn't his story, but April and Clara's to be told.  Marks and Liberato are superb together here too, and even when the film built around them can get broad at times, they nevertheless find honesty and truth in their respective performances.  Their characters and friendship routinely feels organically developed and real here.

There are some outstanding supporting turns in the film as well, especially from Addison Riecke as April's shockingly potty mouthed 13-year-old baby sister (she's hilariously mean here) and their mother (Jessica Hecht), who perhaps dishes out far too frank sexual advice to her daughters to the point of cringe worthy amusement.  I almost forgot to talk about the director here, Benjamin Kasulke, making his feature film debut after success as a cinematographer.  His affinity for stylish visual storytelling is obvious, and he finds creative ways to use vignettes and montages to cut to the core of his character's inner most thoughts (including some funny fantasy and dream sequences that touches on the mounting pressures of April trying to maintain her ties with April while subjugating her feelings for Nick).  On a negative, I do think that BANANA SPLIT seems too short and hastily rushes towards its third act to concludes itself in a key moment that seems more contrived than the authenticity that was on display leading up to it.  Yet, BANANA SPLIT still emerges as an endless charmer as far as this genre goes, and it legitimately tries to mix things up by spitting in the face of so many of the high school romcom's most hackneyed and stale troupes.  Plus, and most crucially, we're now living in a mini Golden age of smartly scripted female centric high school films, a trend that needs to be nurtured and continued. 

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