Banana Split (United States, 2018)

March 25, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Banana Split Poster

Banana Split, the directorial debut of cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, is a romantic comedy with a twist. Here, the central relationship is one of platonic friendship rather than physical attraction. (Although one could make a case that there’s more than a hint of sexual tension in the air.) All the romantic comedy tropes are in place but they are applied to the friendship: the “meet cute,” the honeymoon stage, the break-up, and the reunion. This offbeat approach brings a freshness to a genre that has become so static and predictable that it has largely fallen out of favor with current movie-goers.

The story focuses on a quartet of high school seniors (played by actors who would be more age-appropriate as college grads): April (Hannah Marks), Nick (Dylan Sprouse), Clara (Liana Liberato), and Ben (Luke Spence Roberts). After two years of playing the boyfriend/girlfriend game, Nick and April have come to an uncomfortable end, sparked in part by their decisions to head off to different colleges. Nick puts the final nail in the coffin when he starts dating Clara. The fourth wheel is Ben, who has the unfortunate distinction of being perceived by both women as purely “best friend” material. 

For April, the green-eyed monster rears its head when she sees Nick with Clara. When the two women come face-to-face at a party, however, the unexpected happens: they discover they like one another. Over the course of the next several days and weeks, they start to hang out, even coming up with a set of rules to handle the unconventional situation: (1) No talking about Nick, (2) No talking about their situation with Nick, and (3) no social media. They adopt fake names for on-line chatting: April is “Brad Pitt” and Clara is “George Clooney.”

Banana Split’s structure feels familiar but the critical difference is that, as close as April and Clara become, their interaction remains non-sexual. Others doubt what’s going on and there are times when they question it themselves. But both are heterosexual and neither appears interested in exploring. That doesn’t stop a deep and abiding relationship from developing. We have seen numerous movies about non-sexual male bonding (although almost all of those invite the use of the term “homoerotic” at some point) but something of this sort is less common with female characters. Meanwhile, Nick is less of a character than an object. Both women lust after him and he becomes more important as a catalyst for how April and Clara relate to one another than as a means of bringing about a satisfying conclusion. If there’s one misstep, it’s the handling of Ben. The movie seems undecided about how to use the character or what his storyline should be. It’s incomplete and the one attempt to do something significant with him doesn’t work. He deserves his own movie.

The movie’s abiding strength is the chemistry between Hannah Marks (who co-write the screenplay with Joey Power and resembles a younger Aubrey Plaza) and Liana Liberato. The two mimic the interpersonal dynamic that occurs in common romantic comedies but, although they tease with the idea that they may at some point kiss, it never happens. Banana Split is making a point about how love and sex are not necessarily entwined and uses the natural connection between Marks and Liberato to express this. Marks has a long history in front of the camera, having worked in television and indie films since her teens. She also recently began directing; her feature debut was After Everything. Liberato’s career has been focused more on film; she has appeared in Novitiate and The Beach House.

Those expecting the relationship between April and Clara to cross a sexual line may be disappointed by where Banana Split takes them. However, both characters are well-developed and their interaction seems genuine, especially when one considers the confines of the genre. The humor avoids becoming too outrageous. This is like an indie version of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, which was filmed after Banana Split despite being released earlier. Both films offer complex perspectives of high school-oriented female friendships without demanding a happy ending for the happy ending.

Banana Split (United States, 2018)

Director: Benjamin Kasulke
Cast: Hannah Marks, Liana Liberato, Dylan Sprouse, Luke Spence Roberts
Screenplay: Hannah Marks, Joey Power
Cinematography: Darin Moran
Music: Annie Hart
U.S. Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Run Time: 1:23
U.S. Release Date: 2020-03-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Romance/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1