Few genres are as beholden to tropes than the romantic comedy, which has long traded in predictable patterns, both the good (meet-cutes, will-they-won’t-theys) and the very bad (pitting so-called friends against each other in service to new relationships). The path to love never did run smooth, but too many love stories seem to delight in running over people on the way to eternal bliss. It’s a trope that’s been used as plot (“This Means War,” “The Layover”) and as a dirty little garnish (“Something Borrowed,” “Bride Wars”), always fortifying the most basic and bland of lessons: Romantic love is more important than anything else.
It’s a trope long due for a refresher. One way: jettison the emphasis on romantic love and lean into the value of friendship, a twist that’s been used to great effect in “Booksmart” and “For a Good Time, Call.” Both films placed a premium on the platonic BFF-ships and use the rom-com structure to tell a different kind of love story, with edifying results. Benjamin Kasulke’s “Banana Split” is the next great example of that charming trend: It doesn’t diminish the genre, but drives home its strengths.
Co-written by star Hannah Marks — a young multi-hyphenate on the rise who impresses more with every turn — and Joey Power (who also wrote and directed the similarly genre-flipping rom-com “After Everything” with Marks), “Banana Split” upends genre convention to embrace the power of friendship. April (Marks) is grieving from the one-two punch of breaking up with her longtime boyfriend Nick (Dylan Sprouse) and graduating high school. When she discovers he’s already snagged a new girlfriend, Clara (Liana Liberato), her pain goes even deeper.
Sunny, bold Clara is different than sardonic April, and that’s just one of her irritating factors. Clara is the kind of gal who can gather a pack of new admirers by telling an animated story at a party filled with strangers; April is the sort of person who tosses off lines like “Are we going to a gun range?” to friends desperately trying to get her out of the house. Worse: April is still in love with Nick (maybe). “Banana Split” works hard to ensure that no one becomes an easy scapegoat in this mess; even the audience can’t quite be mad at him for moving on after what seemed to be a mutual breakup. Of course, April can’t be, either.
Forced to interact with Clara at a party, April can’t deny the obvious: Clara is really nice, April is really lonely, and they have the kind of instant-friend chemistry that’s hard to fake. What follows is a summertime platonic romance between the two, one built on both their mutual affection and a litany of rules meant to keep them from feeling weird about Nick (who has zero idea about their fledgling bond).
Kasulke, Marks, and Power have plenty of fun toying with rom-com conventions along the way, from an early lunch with mutual pal Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts) that functions as their coming out to a Palm Springs overnight that serves as a major turning point. “Banana Split” is less adept at peppering in other tropes, from April’s precocious little sister (Addison Riecke) to unpacking Clara’s flighty career plans beyond the barest of basics, but its heart is true: April and Clara.
Unsurprisingly, Kasulke, a long-time cinematographer making his directorial debut, has a strong sense of visual storytelling. Nick’s relationships with both April and Clara are zipped through via smart montages, and April’s overactive imagination is brought to life through amusing fantasies and dreams. The film’s reliance on social media and texting are translated to the big screen with varying results (real Instagram: good, blocky on-screen text to approximate messages: not as good), but at least these teens communicate the way actual teens do.
Like any romance, “Banana Split” is constrained to some familiar beats, but Kasulke, Marks, and Power have such a handle on what makes the film tick — and Marks and Liberato are so charming and fun — that even expected turns feel clever and fresh. April and Clara’s burgeoning friendship and its inevitable problems start to echo another relationship, while the chance to remedy the situation is thrust into unexpected hands. Audiences may see the resolution coming from a mile away, but even the most long-held cliches can remind us why they endure: They work.
A Vertical Entertainment release, “Banana Split” will be available on VOD and digital on Friday, March 27.