There are a lot of classic ingredients that go into a banana split. So it seems appropriate that “Banana Split” includes all the tasty components of a good, fun, soulfully smart summer-after-senior-year teen flick. It’s got sharp-tongued dialogue and fresh appealing actors who know just how to deliver it. It’s got an anthropological eye for youth culture, with its perpetually evolving fashions and habits (e.g., vaping) and pop references (“He thinks he’s a drug lord, clearly.” “Right, because all drug lords drive around in their shitty Jettas listening to Carly Rae Jepson”). It nods to the mythology of John Hughes — in fact, it opens with deadpan-cynical April (Hannah Marks) getting hit on by dreamboat Nick (Dylan Sprouse), who looks like if-Brad-Pitt-and-Leonardo-DiCaprio-had-a-baby with long blond ’90s Hanson brothers hair, the two high schoolers wasting no time before they make out in a diner booth, which leads to a love montage, encounters with a goofy stoner third-wheel friend, a first fight and, of course, the senior prom. And that’s all in the movie’s first five minutes.
And then…they break up.
At which point “Banana Split” can move on to its real and defining love story: the friendship that develops between April, a girl so acerbic she can say to the dude who just asked for a hot dog on her movie-theater concession job, “The smell of your pig parts is going to ruin the cinematic experience for everyone,” and Clara (Liana Liberato), who is, if anything, even sassier, to the point that their conversations are R-rated quipfests of the fastest and raunchiest order. The two become besties, comrades, huggy confessional soul sisters. All very cool. But where’s the dramatic tension in that?
The tension is: After April broke up with Nick, Carla is the girl he started seeing. And they’re still an item. The movie tells the story of two best friends who should, by all rights, hate each other.
“Banana Split,” which has been kicking around the festival circuit for more than a year, was co-written by its star, Hannah Marks, who with her bangs and raccoon mascara and downbeat ebullience suggests a high-school version of Cher. The script, co-written with Joey Power, never lets up (at times it’s as witty as “Booksmart”), but I wish the movie breathed a bit more. It has a touch of sitcom rhythm and not enough of the organic flow that made movies like “Say Anything…” or “Reality Bites” or “Eighth Grade” feel like privileged glimpses into the hearts and minds of kids who are growing past being kids. Watching “Banana Split,” you see what’s coming a mile away, because there isn’t quite enough coming. Yet when the movie is over, you’ve chuckled at it and been touched by it, and you’re glad that you got to spend time with these actors, who are good enough that I could foresee any one of them blowing up big.
April, after breaking up with Nick, saw who he was dating and stalked her on Instagram. So when she and Clara wind up at the same year-end house party, it seems as if armed combat is but a step away. Instead, they wind up doing shots and rapping along with Junglepussy’s “Bling Bling” (“Fuck a wedding ring that ding-a-ling was just a fling, bitch”), which kind of seals their kinship. April already has friends, but Clara, who recently moved to L.A. from Fresno, is a girl who matches her. And it’s telling how irrelevant that renders the fact that they’re rival legs of a romantic triangle. “Banana Split” speaks to a generation for whom romance and friendship may now reside, to a large degree, on different shores.
At the same time, April and Clara are in denial of a conflict that will have to rear its head. The director, Benjamin Kasulke, is a veteran cinematographer who brings the L.A. settings a spangly glow, but he stages too many scenes with generic “punch.” I wish he’d played against the comedy instead of italicizing it, and that he’d come up with some pop-music epiphanies and ditched the film’s cloying synthesizer score. Yet Kasulke establishes a space where Marks and Liberato can let their brainy sensual spirits — and lashing putdowns — fly, and he does an excellent job with the supporting actors, like Addison Riecke as April’s outrageously aggressive kid sister (who’s 13 and says things like “So you’re rebound fucking?”) and Luke Spencer Roberts, who invests the Jon Cryer role with a stylish anxiety that’s more layered than usual. When he steals a kiss from April, we’re pretty sure she won’t ask for it back.