Have you guys heard about millennials? Well, Drake Doremus has — he’s one of them! — and he’s got some thoughts about all that random sex they’re having. Doremus, who won Sundance with 2011’s sensitively simple “Like Crazy,” has never met a flimsy romantic premise he couldn’t populate with beautiful people and banal observations. It was only a matter of time before this prolific indie auteur turned his eye toward the hedonistic thunderdome of dating apps.
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, “Newness” tells the story of two horny (but also sad) twentysomethings who mysteriously regain their feelings and fall in love, causing tensions between themselves and their society. This is not to be confused with Doremus’ last film, the sci-fi slog “Equals,” which was set in an emotionless utopia where two horny (but also sad) twentysomethings mysteriously regain their feelings and fall in love, causing tensions between them and their society. (This time, one of them isn’t played by Kristen Stewart.)
A bloated and ponderous sketch abut love in the time of clickbait, “Newness” is a micro-budget exercise shot in relative secrecy and thrown together quickly (at one point, last November’s “Doctor Strange” can be glimpsed on a movie theater marquee). Our protagonists are a hunky pharmacist, Martin (Nicholas Hoult), and a pretty nurse, Gabi (Laia Costa, the Spanish-born star of the gripping one-take thriller, “Victoria”).
They’re introduced via an app called WINX, and their meet-cute is, for each of them, it’s the second date of the evening; neither of their first dates could get them off. To their shock and delight, the small talk they exchange over pre-coital drinks isn’t agonizing. In fact, it’s informed by the kind of refreshingly radical honesty that’s only possible when you’re talking to someone you’re never going to see again. (Doremus is lost in much of this material, but he illustrates this dynamic with great clarity.) Gabi even tells Martin that she already had sex with someone that night, and Martin confesses that he tried. They talk and talk and talk, and somehow find the strength not to hump each other until the next morning (a patience which, so far as Doremus is concerned, pretty much makes Martin and Gabi the Gandhis of our time).
The honesty keeps rolling as they begin to fall for each other. Martin tells Gabi about his ex-wife, and she tells him that she gets bored easily and is addicted to the euphoric feeling of (wait for it) newness that comes from sleeping with someone for the first time; she’s like a female version of Tomas from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” less interested in men than she is in discovering the unimaginable part of them that makes them different from every other member of their sex. Neither of them really listen to each other. They ritualistically delete their WINX apps together. She meets his parents, one of whom has dementia.
And then something terrible happens: Martin doesn’t feel like having sex one night. Suddenly, the allure of infinitely available casual sex reasserts itself into their lives and truths begin to rot into secrets. How, Doremus asks, can you possibly commit to someone when it’s possible to have everyone?
Another quote from “Unbearable Lightness” comes to mind: “The only relationship that can make both partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other.” The difference is that Milan Kundera spends several hundred pages turning that idea inside and out, cutting to the molten core of monogamy in his quest to excavate the truth beneath what humans want and how they see each other. Doremus, on the other hand, gives us a scene where Martin sits on a park bench while his married friend lectures him about how social media is destroying the natural order. Gabi has sex with someone in The Strokes. One character muses, “The saddest people are the ones who don’t know what they want,” and Doremus — who makes movies as if he’s the first person to notice that relationships are difficult — lets those words linger like he’s just cracked the 21st century wide open. Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th” plays softly in the background.
What value there is to be found is in its cast. Hoult and Costa are charismatic, committed, and totally capable of making it feel as though their characters really can’t see what’s coming, a feeling that’s made palpable through Sean Stiegemeier’s suffocating shallow-focus camerawork (the super-close handheld aesthetic perhaps a byproduct of the film’s tight schedule and light footprint). Still, Martin and Gabi’s asinine conversations — many of which play like improvised riffs on Ben York Jones’ script — are so insufferably generic that it comes as a relief when they start seeing other people. It turns out that digital tools don’t change us, they just bring out who we are. Quelle surprise.
In fairness to these naive youths and to the filmmaker who thought people might get something out spending 112 very long minutes with them, some lessons can only be learned the hard way. Just because common wisdom suggests that relationships are hard, and monogamy isn’t meant for everyone, doesn’t mean that people truly understand what that means. Just because Donald Trump is president doesn’t mean you can believe that it happened. There’s a huge gulf between knowing and internalizing, and we all have to fall into it sometime. “Newness” is too dull to make you peer over the edge, and too weak to push you off of it.
“Newness” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.