“Vanilla” Asks How You Feel About Sex Work

Placing sex work in the context of dating, it brings normalization a little closer to homes.

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Vanilla, a new dramedy by writer and director Will Dennis, is a double entendre for both ice cream and personality. Ice cream is in reference to the focus of Elliot’s aspiring start-up company that offers ice cream on demand, the Uber of ice cream. His personality is also vanilla, as we see the mundanity of his life in an opening sequence: governed by a Google calendar of the cliché entrepreneur, full of coding, meditating, exercise, meals, and scheduled naps. We learn that Elliot is vanilla in one more area of his life when he meets freewheeling aspiring comedian, Kimmie (Kelsea Bauman), in a spur-of-the moment adventure that challenges his self-perception.

Taking place in the scope of a few days, there’s a lot to fit into the limited real estate of its 90-minute runtime. It’s the type of romantic comedy that happens within a single date, only this one spans a road trip from New York, where Kimmie works at a small Brooklyn pizza joint, to New Orleans, where she and Elliot hope to sell a van for which they both share a bit of responsibility and ownership. Kimmie’s life is the struggling young New Yorker type, hoping to make it in comedy without much of a plan on how to do it and making it up as she goes along. Elliot’s is a life of privilege and self-induced pressure to be a successful entrepreneur. There’s a mild suspension of belief required to go along with the idea of Elliot and Kimmie putting themselves in the circumstance of committing to a road trip together after meeting for the first time, but Vanilla does well easing you into it. Kimmie is struggling to make ends meet and needs the money, Elliot is heartbroken and found his first crush.

While their disparate economic statuses are the more obvious threat to their budding interest in one another, the real curveball comes when Kimmie reluctantly tells Elliot how she earns most of her money. Forced into the conversation by an unwitting fan, Kimmie reveals that she is a cam girl, masturbating on the internet to earn tips. It answers a few outstanding questions for Elliot, who had heard her moaning through the thin walls of their cheap hotels along the way. The newfound revelation puts his progressive good-guy persona to the test.

And that’s where Vanilla gets interesting, being less of a will-they-or-won’t-they question of their relationship, but instead measuring a character’s responses (and thus an audience’s comfort) with dating a sex worker. Kimmie, for her part, is honest and straightforward both about her work and her anticipation that Elliot isn’t the type of person who could handle her sex work comfortably. Elliot, to his discredit, quickly proves her right, shifting from thoughtful and witty “before” he learned that detail of her life, to cold and moody “after.”

Vanilla fits into a continued theme in newer romances that successfully subvert the question of will-they-or-won’t-they by being less about them choosing each other and more about the challenges they pose to each other along the way, and how their relationship, however long or short, might change them. It carries a strong balance between somberness and humor, offering laughs from Kimmie, her sort-of uncle played by Eddie Alfano, and an ice cream shop owner played by Aparna Nancherla, while also provoking introspection on navigating modern dating. You don’t exactly root for their relationship as much as you hope for the betterment of their situations prior to their meeting and bonding over the idea of on-demand ice cream.

Overall, Vanilla is a short commitment written with humor and care, one that will leave you more invested in these two characters choices than you might expect. The interesting and uncomfortable situations provoked by those choices are the sandbox for you to build those scenarios with yourself in them. By the credits, you will have either learned something about yourself, or add one of a few movies in your repertoire that explore dating in the context of normalized sex work.

Vanilla is now available for streaming on demand.

Find all of Jordan Calhoun’s Rotten Tomatoes-approved movie reviews at Jordan Calhoun at the Movies.

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  • Jordan Calhoun is a writer in New York City. His forthcoming debut book "Piccolo Is Black" is a celebration of the common adaptations we made while non-diverse pop culture helped us form identities. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @JordanMCalhoun

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