Movie Review ~ Banana Split


The Facts
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Synopsis: After a messy break-up with her high school boyfriend, April strikes up an unexpected friendship with his new girlfriend, Clara.

Stars: Hannah Marks, Liana Liberato, Dylan Sprouse, Luke Spencer Roberts, Meagan Kimberly Smith, Haley Ramm, Jessica Hecht, Addison Riecke, Jacob Batalon

Director: Benjamin Kasulke

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While 2019’s Booksmart may not have found the audience Amazon Studios was hoping for, it’s critical acclaim certainly helped films like Banana Split land a release on a platform wider than the indie festival circuit.  Originally showing up in mid-2018 to decent reviews across the standard run of film fests, the movie, written by star Hannah Marks (Daniel Isn’t Real) and Joey Power, took some time to get further motion and one can only blame the deluge of familiar feeling coming of age comedies around that time for its delay.  Thankfully, now that we all have a little more time on our hands thanks to these new stay at home orders there’s a chance people will be able to discover this guilt-free treat.

Marks stars as April, a recent high school graduate that’s just broken up with her high school boyfriend (Dylan Sprouse, Big Daddy).  Maybe he was The One, maybe he wasn’t.  Yet he was something special and we all know what that’s like not knowing for sure if it was right to part ways with someone.  An opening montage shows us the complexities of their first meeting all the way through their break-up, like a version of the tear-stained beginning of Up maxed out on teenage hormones.  As both go on with their lives during the summer before entering college, April finds a new friend in Clara (Liana Liberato, To the Stars) and they find a fast camaraderie with an instant bond.  There’s just one problem…Clara is Nick’s new girlfriend and he doesn’t know the two of them are friends.

There’s a whole lot of ways Banana Split could take these characters and I was happy to see Marks and Power not take the expected route most of the time.  I grow so weary of all these depictions of high schoolers as nothing but hard partying pill-popping drinkers that rebel against the norm just because.  The characters in the world Marks and Power have created are definitely more adult than their age implies but it’s done in a believable way that comes with real emotional consequences for their actions.  Marks hits the, uh, mark well with her supporting characters too…from geeky third wheels to annoying siblings to parents that want to do right but don’t want to smother.  Each have their own representations in previous films but there’s a special angle given to each supporting subtype here that makes it feel fresh.  The film is also funny, poignant, and quite observant of male-female friendships but putting the emphasis nicely on the delicate dealings between two females that share common interests and one eternal flame.

Movie Review ~ Daniel Isn’t Real


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A troubled college freshman, Luke, suffers a violent family trauma and resurrects his childhood imaginary friend Daniel to help him cope.

Stars: Patrick Schwarzenegger, Miles Robbins, Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were times when I envied people who talked about their imaginary friend when they were growing up.  Having that special person they could converse with and share secrets sounded kind of fun…a little wacky, but fun.  I wanted to know what these “friends” looked like, were they human, did they age along with you, did they go everywhere with you?  What about when you wanted a moment to yourself?  As an only child, I wondered why I didn’t automatically get one of these because I didn’t have the built-in playmate that a sibling often brings but, sadly, I was left to my own creative ways to pass the time.  Probably for the best…I got into enough trouble on my own.  Mom and Dad, sorry again for all of my shenanigans.

In movies, imaginary friends have been featured in romps like 1996’s trite Bogus and, most famously, in 1991’s Drop Dead Fred which was filmed in my hometown (Minneapolis, MN) and showcased one of the last onscreen appearances of everyone’s dreamgirl of the ‘80s, Phoebe Cates.  Drop Dead Fred was a mischievous imp that got our leading lady into all sorts of trouble but ultimately had her best interest at heart.  He may have royally wrecked her life at the outset but it was all for the best.  In the new psychological thriller Daniel Isn’t Real, a make-believe mate wreaks similar havoc that turns far more sinister the more his true motives are revealed.

Based on a 2009 novel by Brian DeLeeuw, the film has an audacious opening that introduces us to young Luke, showing how he comes to meet up with Daniel at the scene of a violent crime.  (It’s a bit of a shock, especially considering some of the recent headline-making incidents, but it’s a highly effective way to kickstart the movie).  Becoming fast friends in spite of their unique circumstance of meeting, Daniel provides an outlet for Luke to escape the troubles at home where his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson, Fried Green Tomatoes) battles a growing mental illness.  After nearly killing his mother under Daniel’s seemingly benign influence, Luke is finally convinced to lock his friend away in a stately dollhouse where he remains trapped for the next decade.

Now a college freshman struggling with his own issues, Luke (Miles Robbins, Halloween, son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) returns to his family home for a visit to find his mother in a downward spiral of schizophrenia.  Under pressure with school, his family, and life in general he turns back to the one time in his life when he felt special, with Daniel.  Unlocking the dollhouse releases Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), who has aged into a brooding trickster more than willing to help his old friend sort out some of his current problems.  With Daniel’s assistance, Luke aces a quiz he was unprepared for, gets the confidence to talk to a girl he’s been eyeing (Hannah Marks) and even meets another girl (Sasha Lane, Hellboy) that might provide the kind of challenging love and support Daniel could never offer.  This, obviously, won’t do.  The longer Daniel is in Luke’s life the less it feels like he’s his friend and more like he’s haunting him.  As Luke eventually realizes what Daniel really is and what’s he’s up to, it becomes a fight for survival because how can you run from someone that’s a part of you?

There’s some good stuff going on in this adaptation from DeLeeuw (Paradise Hills) and director Adam Egypt Mortimer, especially in the opening half when Daniel is more of an enigma.  These early scenes when Luke is struggling with the realities of life and discussing his problems with his psychiatrist (Chukwudi Iwuji) have a nice snap to them.  Even the introduction of the adult Daniel has its interesting moments, with Schwarzenegger’s acting being just on the right side of hokey to pull off the vapid poser this creation is presenting himself to be.  I also liked any excuse to see Masterson onscreen, she was such a popular presence in the ‘80s that it’s nice to see her transition into the mom phase of her career with this complex type of motherly character.

What doesn’t seem to work for me is a dreary final forty minutes, mostly because it rests on the shoulder of Robbins and Schwarzenegger and, sorry to say it, these progeny of Hollywood royalty aren’t exactly captivating thespians.  Robbins is so non-threatening that he’d be a great person to bring home as a prom date but doesn’t convince when he’s asked to preen and sneer when he’s possessed by Daniel’s persona at one point near the finale.  Same goes for Schwarzenegger who, aside from those out of the gate scenes that work, becomes one-note (a low one) fairly fast.   Together, they’re a fairly dullsome twosome and as their escapades turn more violent, the less interesting the movie becomes because DeLeeuw and Mortimer have telegraphed from the start just how far Daniel is willing to take things.

Still, there’s something to Daniel Isn’t Real that kept it on my mind long after it was over.  This feeling of not being able to get away from a destructive inner demon that nags at you is relatable and I appreciated when DeLeeuw and Mortimer explored those internal struggles.  I mean, it’s sometimes a bit literal but there are moments when the suggestion is more effective than the presentation and that’s what sets this one apart.  There are some elements of The Cell that enter the picture near the end, visuals included, and while the budget can’t quite support those aspirations I appreciated the attempt at keeping our eyes fixed onto something unique.  I wonder what this would have been like with stronger leads, though.  If we don’t care about the character going through this turmoil, what’s the point?