Vanilla ice cream is a fine treat. It’s unlikely to knock anyone’s socks off, but the familiarity isn’t going to ruffle any feathers, either. Of course, no one would be happy if plain vanilla ice cream is the only option available at their local ice cream parlor. Sometimes, you need a little extra to excite the taste buds. The same can be said about romantic-comedies. With the “rom-com” label, audiences know what to expect. It’s the vanilla of film genres, just begging for someone to come along and add some sprinkles and chocolate sauce. Thankfully, Will Dennis’ new romantic-comedy, “Vanilla,” might share its title with bland, boring ice cream, but his film has enough extra toppings and surprises that you’ll forget you’re eating the same old flavor to begin with.
Elliot is a perfectly nice, mature guy. He’s clearly intelligent, as he attempts to break into the software engineering world with a new ice cream delivery mobile app. He has a decent apartment and takes care of himself, replete with a variety of nice button-down shirts and gym membership. But Elliot is bland, if not completely uptight, and he pines for his old love that got away. Kimmie, on the other hand, is nothing like Elliott. She’s loud, brash, and seemingly bursting with confidence. These traits bode well for someone who aspires to be a stand-up comedian. But when it comes to working at the local pizza shop? Kimmie is enough to drive her ex-Uncle/boss off the deep end.
Through machinations of the funny script written by Dennis (who also stars as Elliot and directs the film), Kimmie and Elliot find themselves drawn together over the mutual need to sell an old white van to someone across the country. This leads the new couple to test their attraction and budding romance during a multi-day road trip from NYC to New Orleans. What could possibly go wrong?
From that description, astute film fans will notice all the ingredients of yet another, humdrum indie rom-com. And for the first half of “Vanilla,” that’s what you get. However, even through those early scenes, what keeps your eyes glued to the screen is the chemistry that exists between the two leads, Dennis and Kelsea Bauman-Murphy. Dennis is able to portray the boring Elliot with just enough charisma that you don’t immediately hate the guy, but you definitely understand why he’s a single guy, with a sad little fish, making an ice cream app. But the real star is Bauman-Murphy, who brings such energy and joy to Kimmie that she’s bound to capture your heart. In a role that very easily could have fallen into “manic pixie dream girl” territory, Bauman-Murphy (along with Dennis’ writing) is able to give Kimmie dimensionality and layers that lesser, lazier rom-coms would have bypassed.
But this is a rom-com, right? So, you know to expect the Act 2 confrontation that will lead both Elliot and Kimmie in seemingly different directions with no hope of ever getting back together. This issue begins with the discovery by Elliot that Kimmie is a camgirl, which is a bit too much for the button-down software designer to accept. Add to that, Elliot’s past coming back to haunt him, and everyone will fully expect an eventual Act 3 reunion. Surely, Elliot’s ice cream app will become a hot seller, leading him to swoop in and land Kimmie once and for all, as her stand-up career begins to take off, right?…right???
Without getting into spoilers, Dennis isn’t content with working within the typical rom-com rules and his film mixes things up just enough that you will be surprised with how situations play out and the relationship is resolved. The ending that is presented is at once beautiful, sweet, and hopeful, without the routine rom-com moments like a cutesy pop ballad, the slow-motion running and hugging, and the long, spinning kiss between characters.
But don’t go into “Vanilla” expecting Rocky Road. While Dennis has taken liberties with the rom-com genre and is lucky to have Bauman-Murphy showcase her talents for all to see, the film does suffer a bit when it relies too heavily on tropes and its low-budget filmmaking shows its seams. There are moments between Elliot and Kimmie that feel completely unrealistic, oddly convenient, and downright schmaltzy. The “rules” that the two characters formulate over their road trip are cute but don’t necessarily feel genuine when we’re talking about two NYC adults who just met hours earlier and are now on a road trip. And while “Vanilla” isn’t badly made, by any stretch of the imagination, there are filmmaking gaffes and questionable acting from some supporting characters that quickly remind you that the film doesn’t carry a hefty budget.
If you’re someone that enjoys the flavor of rom-coms but is looking for something a bit extra, like a beautiful layer of fudge (a clever script from Dennis) and a heaping helping of colorful, sugary sprinkles (Bauman-Murphy, once again, is a superstar and the life of the film), “Vanilla” is the sweet treat that you will adoringly eat up until the very end. [B]