Benjamin Kasulke (2018)
In our current state of affairs, in which closed movie theaters force us into streaming whatever new fare we can find on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime, one flick that might be a little under your radar but that seems to be a current darling among critics, is the high school romance Banana Split. It’s actually more of a female bromance (is there a term for that? Bramance?) along the lines of Booksmart, but less bookie and more smart.
I have to admit that I was not really feeling it during the first ten minutes or so of this movie. At my age there is a kind of culture shock as I enter the virtual world of Gen Z teens. It ain’t exactly American Graffiti up in here. I couldn’t understand the language, the motivations, or the culture of these kids, and watching felt like an anthropological study. Even—or maybe especially—the music, which featured a largely feminist compilation with a score by Annie Hart and songs from acts like X-Ray Spex and Junglepussy, bands that I have never heard or heard of—it seemed like it was chosen strictly for the cool kids, and that I was definitely not in their clique. But as my wife would remind me, I was not the intended audience.
Benjamin Kasulke makes his directing debut in this feature. Chiefly known as a cinematographer on independent films like Laggies and Safety Not Guaranteed, Kasulke teamed up here with Hannah Marks, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joey Power (with whom she also co-wrote After Everything, which she directed). Marks also stars as April in the film (she was a regular on TV’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency).
April’s story is this: in those first ten minutes, we’re treated to a montage that moves very quickly through her high-school romance with Nick (Dylan Sprouse of TV’s The Suite Life on Deck), sporting a haircut that looks like it’s come right off a romance novel cover. The ten minutes take us through two years of high school, the romance moving from initial infatuation through the obligatory sexual encounters through arguments that seem like they’re happening between an old married couple, through April’s acceptance to Boston University and Dylan’s to the University of California Santa Barbara and the inevitable breakup, which April only finds out about when she sees pictures of Nick with a new girlfriend on Instagram. Man, that’s cold. Do the kids still say that?
The new girlfriend is Clara (Liana Liberato of TV’s Light as a Feather), who has just moved to town from Fresno, and happens to be a childhood friend of Nick’s best friend Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts from Hail Caesar!). April does not take the breakup well as she slides into the awkward summer between high school graduation and college orientation. She becomes alienated from her long-suffering single mom Susan (Jessica Hecht from TV’s Breaking Bad) and her trash-talking scene-stealing tween sister Agnes (Addison Riecke of TV’s The Thundermans), who hopes to move in on Nick herself now that April is out of the picture, and who provides the film’s two most hilarious scenes in sparring with April and her mom at the dinner table. April’s slide into depression can also be seen as she Googles “anxiety vs actual heart attack” and when, at her summer job at the concession stand in her local movie theater, she refuses to sell a customer a hot dog because she doesn’t believe he should be annoying other customers with the ground pig smell. He can have popcorn and soda, but that’s it!
What ultimately raises April out of the morass of self-pity is, ironically, her chance meeting with Clara at a party that Nick had skipped. Expecting to confront the boyfriend-stealing wench and give her what for, April actually finds that she relates to the gentle and sympathetic Clara in a way that is more natural and real than any other relationship in her life, and she and Clara become close, spending every minute of their lives together—except when Clara is with Nick. The two decide early on that their relationship has to have rules, a la Fight Club (they even take on code names, April calling herself Brad Pitt and Clara George Clooney, whom she mistakenly thinks was in Fight Club): first rule of this Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Nick.
And they don’t. It’s also important to them that Nick never finds out that April and Clara are best friends. This becomes a bit of a stumbling block for Ben, who as Clara’s earliest friend and Nick’s best friend is caught in the middle, especially when it becomes clear that he has feelings of his own about April. He hangs around with the two girls when they are in the mood for a third wheel, always with a low-grade anxiety about his liminal position.
The film really is a love story, but not the romantic story we may be conditioned to expect in these teen comedies. This is a love story about two female friends who—April is careful to point out several times—are not sexually attracted to each other but are simply close girlfriends: It turns out they don’t need to be talking about men all the time. It’s a film that seems deliberately made to pass, in a showy and obvious way, what is known as the Bechdel Test.
If you aren’t familiar with the details of the Bachdel Test (as I was not until my wife woke me to it) let me just touch on the salient points: The “test” was first formulated in 1985 by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel gave credit to her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, and was sure Wallace got the notion from Virginia Woof’s A Room of One’s Own. As formulated by Bechdel, the test has three requirements:
- The movie (/book/play) must have at least two women characters,
- Who actually talk to each other
- About something other than a man.
The scene in which April and Clara are beginning to bond with each other by, first, laughing about things that Nick does, and which ends with their making a rule about not talking about Nick, becomes, then, a direct allusion to the Bechdel Test, and a kind of commitment that all their future conversations are going to pass that test, damn it!
The Bechdel Test, of course, doesn’t really do anything other than underscore how few movies are made every year that can actually pass the test, and that our society has some way to go before achieving any kind of balanced representation in its cultural output. But passing the test doesn’t automatically erase any flaws in a film, this one included. The flaw here is a rather stagnant plot. There is really no reason for us to care about April’s relationship with Nick, since the real point is simply that she is dumped, so the fact that we barely see them together is no big deal. But unfortunately, in the relationship between April and Clara, nothing much happens. We see them hanging out together in a few self-contained scenes, but the movie’s not going anywhere. Nick has to be reinserted late in the film to introduce a conflict. That happens just about the time Ben acts on his crush on April, but because his role is so underwritten, we don’t really get to relate to his feelings much either.
These are not minor issues, but none of them is enough to sink the movie. It may not be as comically memorable as Ferris Bueller or as profound as The Graduate, but Banana Split turns out to be a fun romp that goes further than most high-school graduation summer flicks to make a statement worth hearing. Three Tennysons for this one.
The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
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Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.