*** I'm typically wary of any indie romantic comedy that has "quirky" in the synopsis, but Vanilla writer, director and star Will Dennis manages to infuse the film with enough self-awareness and charm to keep the eye-rolling at bay. The story centers on Elliot (Dennis), a well-meaning elder millennial whose trust fund keeps him aimless; Kimmie (Kelsea Bauman-Murphy), a free-spirited (and, dare I say, quirky) would-be comedian; and the New York City-to-New Orleans road trip they suddenly find themselves on together. A large part of the film's success lies in Dennis' skewering of Elliot's false wokeness, whether via his square reaction to sex work or the use of that goldem emblem of psuedo-hip guys across the globe: a copy of David Foster Wallace's magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Bauman-Murphy possesses a magnetic screen presence and affability on par with the Broad City crew, making her the perfect vehicle for the audience to share "man dudes are stupid" laughs with. Like any good road movie, Vanilla features a fair amount of philosophical discussion—the philosophy here being white, cis men are often cluelessly presumptive, selfishly unaware and, well, vanilla. Wisely presenting a story about communication between the sexes from the perspective of Kimmie, Vanilla is among the rare romcoms that smartly dissects our evolving ideas of gender roles. NR. DONOVAN FARLEY. On Demand.
*** Emerging artists trying to find their voice often borrow from those who inspired them, which is what Donta Storey has done with their debut short film now streaming on Amazon Prime. LiME is a swirl of Storey's influences, ranging from Barry Jenkins to Charles Burnett, which coalesces into a fresh semi-autobiographical short about the marginalization of a nonbinary youth. The film takes place in Storey's hometown of Compton, Calif., where DeShawn (Urian Ross) lives with their grandmother (Allana Barton) and tries to stay out of trouble. One day while walking home from band practice, DeShawn is beaten senseless for being queer—an assault similar to what Storey experienced while growing up. Like the director, DeShawn leans into their support system of women, anchored by their grandmother, to lift themself out of depression. "There are sour people in this world and there are sweet people in this world," she tells the weeping child, lying bruised on the couch. It's up to DeShawn—and all of us, really—to decide which one we want to try to be, even when living your truth can feel impossible in an acidic world. NR. ASHER LUBERTO. Amazon Prime.