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Film Review: There’s Nothing Ordinary About This “Vanilla”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 27th, 2020

Film poster: “Vanilla”

Vanilla (Will Dennis, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

The road trip is hardly a novel narrative device, the physical journey a convenient stand-in for a voyage of self-discovery. Nor is romantic comedy a little-used genre. Still, though there be nothing new under the sun, what makes a story sparkle is the manner in which it bakes its well-worn ingredients into a seemingly fresh cinematic pie. In his feature debut, director/star Will Dennis does just that, delivering an enjoyable meander of a tale that heads down unexpected detours as it travels the road often taken. The result, Vanilla, is simultaneous familiar and idiosyncratic, and a run fide. Sure, there are some bumps along the way, but the eventual destination makes it all worthwhile.

Dennis plays Elliot, a would-be New York app developer on a yearlong rebound from his last relationship. It’s a big step to sell the van in which he and ex-girlfriend Trisha had abundant adventures, but he needs the dough to launch his ice-cream-vending program – like an Uber Eats/Grubhub, only exclusively for frozen dairy – and, besides, it’s high past time to forget. And who should buy it but Kimmie (Kelsea Bauman-Murphy), helping out her ex-uncle-by-marriage who needs it for his pizza parlor. A pizza parlor that Kimmie will, in fact, soon jeopardize by not cleaning vigorously enough (she works there, too), leading to a rat infestation. When Elliot makes a mild pass at her, she … passes, but nicely, and then they each move on.

Kelsea Bauman-Murphy and Will Dennis in VANILLA ©Gravitas Ventures

But then come the rats and Kimmie’s uncle needs the money back that he gave Kimmie to buy the van. Since Elliot needs that money for his app, he’s not offering a refund. Enter (or re-enter) Trisha, working on a film set in New Orleans, who calls Elliot asking about the van, which she says would be perfect for the movie. The producer is willing to pay top price for it. When Elliot mentions this to Kimmie (neglecting the part about his romantic history with Trisha), she agrees to drive down there, but not alone. Simultaneously missing Trisha and hoping for a fling with Kimmie, Elliot agrees to go with. The stage is set for some odd kind of odyssey, for sure.

Both Dennis and Bauman-Murphy are pleasant company, their Elliot and Kimmie fully realized characters whose particular eccentricities set apart this rom-com from others. Dennis’ writing and direction are mostly assured, the ultra-indie vibe affording his dialogue front-row placement, since that and the innovative details are all there is to keep the plot rolling forward (and the van). Not all of the supporting players are quite as fine, but the two leads carry everything else, even when the script falters in certain overly broad moments. Ultimately, we end up just where we should, however surprising the conclusion. Don’t let the title fool you (though I happen to love the flavor, myself): there’s nothing ordinary about this Vanilla.

Kelsea Bauman-Murphy and Will Dennis in VANILLA ©Gravitas Ventures

Available on VOD starting April 28.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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