A little “cute” goes a long way in “Vanilla,” a light and winning road picture romance that’s a promising feature film debut from writer-director Will Dennis.
That “long way” is New York to New Orleans, where an unlikely pair — Kelsea Bauman is Kimmie, Dennis himself is Elliot — must deliver her van to his former girlfriend, who needs it on her movie shoot.
Yes, young filmmakers make movies about making movies, because basically, it’s what they know the most about.
But the “obstacles to love” are unusual and promising, the “trip” has a couple of fun wrinkles in a tried and true formula and our leading lady — young enough and funny enough to be a web producer on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” — is a real find.
Bauman is the latest to master the “eccentric, quirky and in command” woman who keeps the guy, and to a lesser degree the audience, on its heels from start to whatever finish this budding romance is headed for. Kimmie is the Maude to hapless Elliot’s Harold, Melanie Griffith’s “Something Wild” to Jeff Daniels’ not-wild-at-all, Greta Gerwig to any co-star within her reach.
Kimmie’s an inept cashier her her ex-uncle’s (Eddie Alfano) New York slice shop, pretty enough to get away with trying her crude stand-up material on every customer who walks in the door.
“What did the emcee at the orgy say to all the guests?”
That sort of stuff.
Elliot is a “privileged” app designer trying to peddle his ice cream deliver pitch to assorted shops. Yes, we can wonder “How’d that work?” Everybody else does.
His wealthy mother (Kathryn Grody) hears all his problems and offers what counseling she can by phone, but she’s tied up with her much younger toy boy.
And there’s this 1990 Dodge van that he needs to unload, sort of the last vestige of his relationship with Trisha, the One Who Broke His Heart.
Enter Kimmie, for once solving a problem and not creating one for Uncle Sal. She buys the van, with the proviso she can bring it back “If I’m not satisfied.” Long-estranged Trisha, a production manager on a film school in the Big Easy, thinks the van would be the perfect car prop in the movie she’s working on.
And Kimmie, who is “not satisfied,” wants to sell a perfectly reliable “love wagon.” She just needs Elliot’s help.
Kimmie has the cockiness of an emancipated and wholly “woke” young woman who also happens to be a looker, and knows it. She puts us on blast for “what the kids are doing/talking about these days,” and Elliot’s job once he promises to “please don’t murder me” stranger, on a three day trip she calls “the world’s long (first) date,” is to try and keep up.
There’s his pitch for “the best Bahn mi in the city” and her “That is such a privileged white dude thing to say,” road trip “rules” that include “no lying” and reading from a bag of purloined fortune cookies every time they cross a state line and the “collaborative dance” duet they have to dream up and rehearse at every gas stop.
“You’re sooooo ‘cis-gender'” but “I’m progressive! Abort the babies, hairy the armpits, free the nipples. Equal pay!”
She’s taking notes for her stand-up act. He’s refining his ice cream delivery pitch. She’s got a secret. He’s got a secret.
Sparks or no sparks between the smitten guy and “the girl who likes intellectualizing physical contact,” doom awaits.
The rarity of romantic comedies with anything at all that works allow indie/chatty romances like “Vanilla” a win, almost by default. It gets by on banter, energy, the perky leading lady and the “secrets” each is keeping from the other.
Too little is made of the “road,” aside from “collaborative dance” rehearsals, just a DC stop here and a Memphis “open mike” there.
But as “soft-serve” as it may, the reason this genre formula sticks around is that it works. It’s just sweet enough. Kelsea Bauman is a real find. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her future appearances.
Dennis? He could make this his genre, maybe cast a more magnetic leading man to play “the guy’s the vulnerable one” next time.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual content, profanity
Cast: Will Dennis, Kelsea Bauman, Eddie Alfano and Taylor Hess
Credits: Written and directed by Will Dennis. A Gravitas release.
Running time: 1:28