“You guys are perfect for each other, you know that?” April cocks her neck, turning to meet Clara smile with smile, closing the space where a head had been nuzzled moments before. Three middle-class, white teens sit in a local diner for lunch, or a high school snack, and pick fries off of a shared plate while reveling in their latest misadventure. “Oh, shoot,” April exclaims and tilts her phone to her girlfriend. They pop their Tuesday birth control pills cutely, together.
Following the romantic and platonic relationships of four teenagers during their final high school summer, American Indie’s Banana Split certainly finds its place amongst 2018’s “burgeoning rom-com renaissance.” Adorably angsty, Hannah Marks plays April, newly single post-break up from her high school sweetheart, Nick (Dylan Sprouse). Freshly-moved, suspiciously living on her own, Liana Liberato’s Clara is quickly discovered to be Nick’s new beau. Despite the natural hostility that is expected to exist between the two girls, April and Clara become fast girlfriends, while furtively dealing with their individual desires for Nick.
With initially only Nick and mutual jealousy in common, April and Clara are immediately drawn to and enthused by each other. They’re both a little lonely amongst their adolescent cohorts, Clara having only just arrived to the SoCal suburb and very single April left to the devices of her “not-friendly” girlfriends. With Junglepussy and Princess Nokia blaring in the background, April and Clara grow closer in a way that seems at first suggested to only be possible through their mutual girlhood.
The two girls can reveal their intensely normal social media background checking, they can hike and pee in public with each other. They can groan about Nick’s young lover behaviors (“Oh my God, and when he puts your nose in his mouth! Is that supposed to be sexy?”) Their ribbing is natural and quick, and I am reminded of my own high school girlfriends (the decidedly “Not Friendly” kind), and the telegraphed nature of our own performances, conspicuously and awkwardly demanding each other’s recognition. “You know the words!” Clara insists to April as a lull in their first conversation leaves room to adlib “Bling Bling.” “You have to sing, those are the rules!” All under the cover of a presumably platonic connection, April and Clara are free to poke and prod, exploring their own growing pains and independence through the other.
“What will I do when I’m freezing cold in Boston, without you?” April murmurs to Clara, the two tripping in a kitsch Palm Springs hotel bed. “Wear a jacket of my skin,” Clara responds simply. From the onset of their developing relationship, April and Clara regularly allude to and joke about their same-sex relationship.
The same thing that allows them to be so open with one another, their gender, is also an underlying question mark. “I guess we’ll just have to scissor,” a stereotypical straight trope that reveals just how little ‘straight’ people genuinely consider the possibilities of gay romance, is Clara’s first of many casual admissions of the queer nature of hers and April’s connection.
Lightly agonizing over whether or not to actually send Clara the First Text, April conjures a representation of Clara to egg her on. “Send it,” is the irreverent, red-lipped and devil-horned demand of Clara’s coy form. April and Clara’s summer play-dates are almost a montage of ‘falling in love’ tropes—bowling, sharing diner food, road trips and new, shared experiences. April’s and Clara’s relationship is decidedly straight, but only because it is explicitly defined as such.
“Just so we’re clear, I’m not actually a lesbian. I feel like I’ve been giving you some lesbian undertones, and like, I did—I did, uh, make-out with my friend Sally once, but—” April attempts to clear up anxiously after a few too many “we’re hanging out but we’re not gay!!!” jokes. “I didn’t enjoy it.” I’m hearing you, but I described my first kiss with a boy as warm, wet, and spongy; I have sex with a man regularly now!
April and Clara snuggle in bed, feed each other food, cuddle again, share secrets, advice, soul-searchings and encouragement. The majority of the film follows the two girls rapidly-formed, intimate relationship, full of petting and touching and eye contact. But even as there is a ‘gross mistake’ kiss shared between April and Ben (portrayed by Luke Spencer Roberts), personal confidante and Nick’s best friend, there is never such a mistake between the two girls. Instead, both Clara and April greedily pine for Nick while attempting to support their own insistently platonic partnership.
A shared gender does not on its own erase possibilities of desire, nor does it create them. April’s “not-friendly” fallback girlfriends inspire little girlish intimacy, and April’s little sister Agnes (played with cute and comic wit by Addison Riecke) sees Clara only as an obstacle to Nick. In Banana Split, kids like who they like. And they’re constantly distracted by having to explain why that’s okay, particularly in this moment at the end of their high school tenures, before continuing to grow up.
And, as the youth will do, they lie about; allowing an all-too-familiar discomfort with communication (despite the cast playing abnormally communicative and candid teenagers) to drive a wedge between their pleasant and exploratory relationships. As April and Clara quickly grow closer, their mutual desire to Be With Nick, while still being with each other, makes a credibly-catty mess.
April and Clara’s friendship was earnest and sincere, and yet Nick’s consistent insertion is not unwelcome. Amongst the nostalgia of an indie high school romance and impending end of childhood, Dylan Sprouse is a beautiful, vaguely (also) feminine addition. Carrying all of the charm and vastly less corniness of the typical Cool Bro lead, Sprouse offers an alluring and vibrant love interest that can compete with Clara and April’s electricity.
Banana Split is a fun, cute movie that creates a youthful moment full of adolescent turbulence—comfortably cushioned by material comforts and honest, communicative support networks. By the time Fall comes and the teens go their separate ways after a summer of low-stakes exploration, we’re left thinking: Can’t love, whatever kind of love it is, be enough of a reason to preserve our relationships? Banana Split is deafeningly heteronormative, but it shows an honestly-immature probe into the blurred lines of simply wanting people. As Clara says, “Fuck it.”
Banana Split, written by Hannah Marks and Joey Powers, directed by Benjamin Kasulke, premiered on September 22 at LA Film Festival, and it has an 8.7 rate on IMDB.