Working off of a script written by Hannah Marks and Joey Power, Benjamin Kasulke finds a delicate balance between sweet and sour in Banana Split, a teen rom-com with less emphasis on the “rom,” enough on the “com,” and greater emphasis on complicated friendships between its leads, April (Marks) and Clara (Liana Liberato). They come together not over common interests but a common boy.
The boy is Nick (Dylan Sprouse), Clara’s boyfriend, who just so happens to be April’s ex and first real love. Kasulke captures their coupling’s rise and fall in a montage facilitated by X-Ray Spex and Annie Hart (who also composes the film’s score), a one-two musical sequence of anarchic energy diffusing into melancholy over snares drums: first the revolutionary decision to be more than friends, then the decision to have sex, then the pet names, then slow-burning obsession with social media, then bickering in public and squabbles while taking prom photos. College admission letters nail their coffin shut. April and Nick can’t work in person. They won’t survive going to school on opposite coasts.
Enter Clara, who rightly snaps up Nick heading into senior year. The temptation to write her as a boilerplate mean girl might’ve been stronger for someone other than Marks, but Marks does the unexpected: She makes Clara cool. She’s so cool that despite the obvious hurdle of Nick, she and Clara become instant besties, with necessary provisions for avoiding residual jealousy and blow-ups. Girl code only works temporarily, because without jealousy and blow-ups, there’d just be an hour of April and Clara chilling, rapping Junglepussy songs, teaching one another critical life skills like the fine art of peeing on the side of a hiking trail without soaking one’s shoes—everything, in other words, that teens really ought to be doing as they slide into high school’s home stretch. Instead of making drama, they make memories.
Watching Marks and Liberato together on screen is a genuine joy to behold; they’re apparently close off screen, which helps, but even with the camera presiding over their chemistry, they’re unfailingly natural. Nothing they do feels forced, or artificial. Whoever Marks and Liberato are when they’re not on a movie set is irrelevant. What matters is how they engage with each other before Kasulke’s lens (manned by Darin Moran). April’s cool in her way. Clara’s cool in hers. Making this a story of the popular girl getting chummy with the outsider wouldn’t suit Banana Split’s purpose, so Marks and Power have made it a story about two young women looking for how they’re alike, not how they’re different, and discovering the ways they complement each other.
Boys are around, and they play their part, and in fact Nick’s side-plot with Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts), his openly ginger best buddy, reflects the same lessons learned in April’s inevitable confrontation with Clara: Being a friend means learning to forgive. Every friendship has rocky points, even the true blue variety. (Sprouse and Roberts get the short end of the stick, but that’s fine. They’re tourists in April and Clara’s narrative.) Fundamentally, Banana Split isn’t about making unexpected friendships under antithetical circumstances, but about figuring out how to maintain them no matter what difficulties it encounters. It’s an honest film, and unabashedly fun, with a really kickass soundtrack as a bonus (songs by Tacocat and I Break Horses, among others, round out the list).
Ideally, Banana Split could’ve used another 10, even five minutes to breathe a bit—the film clocks at around 75—but as a short burst of heartfelt comedy, it works. Banana Split’s best quality, Marks’ comfort with Liberato coming in a close second, is the strength of Marks and Power’s brisk, circumspect writing. More teen comedies should push themselves as far as this one does to explore all of the complicated nooks and crannies of adolescence.
Director: Benjamin Kasulke
Writers: Hannah Marks, Joey Power
Starring: Hannah Marks, Liana Liberato, Dylan Sprouse, Luke Spencer Roberts, Jacob Batalon, Addison Riecke, Jessica Hecht,
Release Date: March 27, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.