Clara, (Liana Liberato), and April, (Hannah Marks), aren’t supposed to be friends. After all, Clara’s new casual boyfriend is also April’s serious ex—their relationship lasted two years, an eternity in the grand scheme of high school relationships. Nonetheless, the two girls meet at a house party in the summer after their senior year: Clara is charming strangers, while April is drowning her heartbreak in tequila. The social order demands that they hate each other, and April is prepared to comply—as she tells Clara, “I want a reason to give you a black eye.” Clara is also uncomfortable, having not known that she was dating April’s ex until a week before their coincidental encounter. Despite their circumstances, the two become fast friends united by their shared sense of humor and desire for adventure. Banana Split, directed by Benjamin Kasulke, chronicles this budding friendship. Although the film’s focus—a friend group’s romantic entanglements—may not be strikingly original, its witty script, nuanced depiction of female friendship, and naturalistic performances, particularly from Marks, make it as fun as the last few weeks of summer vacation.
In an early scene, Clara and April bond over Nick’s (Clara’s current boyfriend, portrayed by Suite Life of Zack and Cody’s Dylan Sprouse) stranger quirks—like his tendency to put his lovers’ noses in his mouth—before deciding that if they’re going to be friends, it has to be on their terms, not his. So they set out ground rules: no talking about Nick, and no telling him about their friendship. Of course, the viewers can predict that these rules will be trampled on by the time the film’s done, but that knowledge of the inevitable confrontation with Nick adds tension to an otherwise lowkey dramedy. Furthermore, their secrecy is threatened by Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts), April and Nick’s dorky, blabbermouth, mutual friend.
In a movie like this, where the plot is essentially “a group of friends talk, hook up, and get mad at each other,” the strength and believability of the characters is central to the success of the film. As the director Benjamin Kasulke told me during an interview, “If [the characters] don't feel approachable, or they don’t feel like something you can relate to, then what’s the point? Then you’re just making a bunch of jokes and the movie’s over.’” Of all the characters, April is the most captivating: she’s perpetually wide-eyed and terrified yet outgoing; she gets drunk at parties but also Googles “anxiety vs heart attack.” There are moments when she seems like she’ll fall into the “quirky girl” stereotype, but her multifaceted personality confounds those categories. In an early scene in the film, from when she and Nick were together, she makes fun of his music taste, but instead of queuing up some hip and probably-from-the-nineties alternative (as is typical of the “quirky girl” archetype), she blasts a rap song. Marks, who wrote the film alongside Joey Power, manages to perfectly balance her character’s vulnerability with her brashness.
Still, April is most interesting in her interactions with Clara. In its best moments, Banana Split shows the weirdness and magic of female friendship, a wonder that’s misunderstood by other characters, (like Ben). Clara and April giggle about each other’s hookups, but don’t shame each other, and casually swap birth control pills at lunch. At one point, Clara tells April, “I miss my family,” and April tells her, “You can have mine.” The movie gets close, on multiple occasions, to suggesting romantic feelings between them—they hold hands in bed, Clara even suggests at one point that they make out, though April anxiously declines—but ultimately keeps their relationship platonic. While some viewers will surely see this as a missed opportunity for LGBTQ representation, it also keeps the film’s message more squarely on friendship. In fact, Kasulke told me that he purposely set up the film to mess with viewer’s expectations: at first it seems like a heterosexual romance, than perhaps a romance between two girls, “but the really fulfilling relationship is a lifelong friendship.”
The movie aims to be as amusing as the last few weeks of summer—there’s multiple parties, and (I counted) four different relationship montages. This hedonistic fun, all set to a pretty L.A. backdrop and a soundtrack of carefree indie tunes, is tempered by the characters’ knowledge that at the end of the summer their friend group will fracture as they head off to various colleges. Clara and April’s relationship is precarious—and they know it. Early on, April asks Clara, about their newfound friendship, “Is this crazy?” and Clara giggles, “Probably.” Yet their choice to be friends, if only for the summer, is ultimately not so much crazy as bittersweet.
Photo credits: Film stills from Banana Split.
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