On paper, “Banana Split” isn’t a wholly unique movie. All you need to do is watch 10 minutes of the film, and the influences of countless teen films released since the ‘80s are evident. But yet, there’s not really another film exactly like “Banana Split,” which flips the teen rom-com formula on its head by focusing on platonic love, pushing the romance to the side, as it deals with issues of loneliness and emotional growth in a period when teens are forced to move on from the comforts of childhood. All told, much like the dessert that inspired its name, “Banana Split” is a mixture of familiar tastes but combined in a way that sets it apart from your boring coming-of-age scoop of vanilla ice cream.
April (Hannah Marks, who also co-wrote the film) just graduated from high school. And like her peers, she’s preparing for her life in college, where she’ll move from California to Massachusetts—Boston University, specifically. However, due to move, she’s been forced to break up with her sweetheart of two years, Nick (Dylan Sprouse)—who has decided to stay in their home state for college—which has pushed her into a bit of a melodramatic, teenage depression. April can now be found regularly getting hammered at house parties and lamenting the final days of her high school existence.
But all that changes when Nick’s new girlfriend, Clara (Liana Liberato), approaches April and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the “other woman.” Over the course of a few days, the girls become instant friends and devise a plan to hide their relationship from Nick, which, as you might expect, is bound to backfire eventually.
While you may think that Nick plays a vital role in the film, based on your knowledge of previous teen rom-coms which love to focus on love triangles between two girls and a hunky boy, “Banana Split” quickly dashes that possibility as Sprouse is sidelined for most of the film’s run-time. Instead, the requisite meet-cute, the date montage, and the flirty, quippy banter that usually are reserved for the “rom” part of rom-com are between April and Clara, whose passionately platonic relationship makes up the heart and soul of the comedy.
It’s that camaraderie between two teenage girls, who would be rivals in a lesser, more conventional film, that lifts “Banana Split” above its peers. Marks and Liberato are a joy as April and Clara, respectively. While Marks is asked to carry the bulk of the film, which she’s more than capable of doing with her hilarious mix of awkwardness and charm—she’s the girl that knows all the lyrics to the best rap songs but also will attempt to be scary by threatening to disable your carbon monoxide detector—the back and forth between the two young actresses is effortless and feels completely honest and real. You’d swear that Marks and Liberato aren’t even acting and genuinely have been besties for years.
Even though the platonic love story at the film’s core is fun, unique, and thoroughly modern, “Banana Split” still suffers from predictability, as there’s never one doubt about how this story will play out. Having seen any teen comedy from the past 40 years will make large portions of this film feel typical. There’s the sassy little sibling (actress Addison Riecke does her best to make April’s little sister, Agnes, stand out with some great line delivery), the clueless, but supportive, parent, and the quirky, but fashionable, friend. You’ll also find the inevitable house parties that feel way too elaborate and lively to resemble anything close to real life. And let’s not forget the reliable second-act betrayal that leads to the will-they-won’t-they moment of the finale. It’s all been done before—sometimes better— and director Benjamin Kasulke, along with co-writers Marks and Joey Power, probably should have subverted just a few of the tropes that have now become overused and obvious.
That being said, even the most egregious issues of the film are quickly forgiven when Marks and Liberto are on the screen. Prepare to be delighted by their interactions and relationship, transporting you back to the times you would needlessly drive long distances on impromptu adventures just to spend time with your best friend. By the end of the film, you just want to see what’s next for April and Clara, and follow up during Thanksgiving break, the next summer, or even 10 years from now.
Ultimately, the summer between high school and college is frightening for many teens. It’s a time where you are expected to start fresh and move from what feels like the most important time in your life to another era where adulthood is supposed to actually begin. Through the journeys of both April and Clara, “Banana Split” is a sweet and often hilarious look at how teenagers can experience a range of emotions over this three month period and come out the other side stronger than before. And though it borrows heavily from the other films, there’s something about combining different flavors and food groups that is still completely satisfying and enjoyable. [B]