'Vanilla': Film Review

Vanilla Still 1 - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Subject
You'll enjoy the journey.

Two virtual strangers go on a three-day road trip together in Will Dennis' romantic comedy.

Road trips are a comedic narrative staple that are as reliable as they are formulaic. That's why you'll find Will Dennis' first feature enjoyable, even as you're all too aware of its narrative gears moving too heavily. Despite its familiar aspects, Vanilla chugs along nicely thanks to frequently witty dialogue and the terrifically charming and funny performance by its leading lady, Kelsea Bauman-Murphy, making a film debut that heralds the promise of bigger things.

Dennis, who wrote and directed, also plays the lead role of Elliot, a struggling tech designer whose uptightness is signified by his neatly tucked-in button-down shirts. In need of money after failing in his attempts to peddle an ice cream delivery app to skeptical show owners, he's looking to sell his van in which he spent many happy hours with his ex, Trisha (Taylor Hess), for whom he still pines.

He winds up selling it to Kimmie (Bauman-Murphy), an aspiring comedian who tries out her one-liners on the unamused customers of the struggling pizza parlor owned by her "ex-uncle" Sal (Eddie Alfano, Shameless, nearly stealing the film), where she works as a cashier. But when Kimmie's negligence results in the shop being overrun by rats and having to temporarily close, she tries to return the vehicle and get her money back to help Sal out.

Elliot refuses, but makes her a counteroffer. In the meantime, Trisha, who works as a production coordinator on a movie shooting in New Orleans, has offered to buy the van for the production. Cue the inevitable road trip from NYC to the Big Easy, with Elliot and Kimmie going on the "world's longest first date" despite her not unreasonable trepidation.

"Don't murder me, okay?" she asks as the journey begins.

The ensuing tentative foray into romance is not without its complications, as Elliot doesn't divulge that the trip will reunite him with his former love and Kimmie doesn't tell him about her lucrative side hustle which she engages in even during the trip.

It's hardly a believable plot setup. The filmmaker doesn't help matters by indulging in far too many cutesy and overly broad touches, including Elliot and Kimmie creating collaborative dance moves during rest stops, opening fortune cookies upon crossing state lines and posing for goofy photographs at various stops along the way. Another plot element that doesn’t work involves Elliot's frequent phone calls to his mother (theater veteran Kathryn Grody), who's involved in a romantic relationship with a decades-younger boy toy (Johnny Sibilly, Pose).  

But there are also some terrific scenes, such as Kimmie attempting to perform her stand-up during an open-mic night hosted by a hilariously acerbic emcee (Anthony Devito). More importantly, the pic's dialogue is often fast and funny, with Dennis largely playing agreeable straight man to his talented co-star. Bauman-Murphy, who's worked as an associate and web producer on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas, manages to be both charming and edgy, sexy and funny, displaying pitch-perfect comic timing with her sardonic delivery of the frequently raunchy material.  

Benefiting from its location shooting in such locales as Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, Vanilla proves far more flavorful than its title would suggest.

Available on VOD/Digital
Production company: Will Dennis Productions

Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Will Dennis, Kelsea Bauman-Murphy, Kathryn Grody, Eddie Alfano, Taylor Hess, Johnny Sibilly, Aparna Nacherla
Director-screenwriter: Will Dennis
Producers: Will Dennis, Adam Peryer, Tom Atwell
Director of photography: Tom Atwell
Editor: Catrin Hedstrom
Composer: Zak Engel

87 minutes