A charming little nugget of a romantic-comedy that tentatively explores the existence of love stories in a world that seems to have outgrown them, Carly Stone’s “The New Romantic” is a movie for a generation that finds themselves uncomfortably wedged between “Sleepless in Seattle” and boning via Bumble — a generation that was raised on “Sex and the City,” but never got to live in Carrie Bradshaw’s New York. Blitzing through her feature debut in a quick 82 minutes, Stone doesn’t waste any time swirling all of those touchstones together and distilling them into the form of a girl named Blake (engagingly played by “The End of the F***ing World” star Jessica Barden).
The sex columnist for the newspaper at her sleepy Canadian college, Blake is introduced — in true Bradshaw fashion — via a voiceover reading of her latest article. Mentioning how she binged Nora Ephron movies when she had mono in high school, our wistful heroine muses on the state of modern dating, before concluding that romance is dead altogether: “I bet if Harry met Sally in 2018, they’d just end up as fuck buddies.” Blake’s column is promptly killed. Not because she isn’t a strong writer (eh), but rather because, well, she isn’t having any sex. She’s lost interest in her own love life, which has presumably been pretty unremarkable when compared to the stuff of her favorite love stories; who needs grand gestures when you can just find a warm body on Tinder?
But Blake refuses to take this lying down. She’s thirsty for a writing award named after Hunter S. Thompson (of course), and decides that the only way to revitalize her writing is to embrace the spirit of gonzo journalism. She’s gonna have some sex — if not for herself, then for her column. To the credit of a film that’s convincingly fluent in today’s youth culture (if also a bit arch and precocious about narrativizing it), no one is the least bit shook by Blake’s statement; hooking up for the story isn’t really all that radical in an age when people do things for the ’gram.
Blake’s roommate Nikki (“Riverdale” breakout Hayley Law) is more than happy to be an enabler, pushing her friend to take things even further after a chance encounter with a sexpot co-ed (Camila Mendes, also on loan from the “Riverdale” set) introduces Blake to the lucrative world of sugar daddies. And so Blake’s next story falls into her lap — or maybe it’s the other way around — when she’s introduced to Ian (Timm Sharp), a bearded finance bro in his early ’40s who’s happy to exchange gifts for sex with a nubile young undergrad. Lucky for him, Blake only wants material. “Why does our society hate gold diggers?” she muses. “Maybe relationships aren’t supposed to be for love, but for survival.” Or, as Carrie Bradshaw might write: “And that’s when I realized… maybe having a sugar daddy is as sweet as it gets.”
Cynicism is a lot more fun when you’re young, when it’s still a posture and not yet a permanent condition — when every decision in life still feels like it should be as crystalline as the synth loop of a Chvrches song (this whole movie feels like it could have been adapted from a Chvrches song). And Blake is young, especially the way Barden plays her. 20 going on 16, her wide-eyed naïveté makes it more believable that she’d be eagerly devouring a college sex column than she would be writing it herself, but Stone respects her protagonist too much to belittle her like that. If anything, “The New Romantic” serves as a corrective to decades of rom-coms where everyone on campus is on the cusp of 30, and Blake’s youthfulness underlines the skeeziness of her scenes with Ian; no matter how easy things get between them, you never forget the transactional foundation of their relationship.
Neither does Blake. Well, not entirely. She spends most of the movie suspended in a pleasant state of confusion, Barden acting many of her scenes like someone waiting for her first hit of MDMA to kick in. She signed up for a relationship, but where’s the romance? Or… is this just what it feels like? We’re waiting right there with her, especially as the film doesn’t give us much else to do in the meantime.
Short but also frustratingly scattershot, Stone’s screenplay is too expectant to commit to anything. Blake’s flirtation with the age-appropriate guy you know she’s going to end up with is backgrounded in a way that only underlines its inevitability, and that’s par for the course in a film that hedges between questioning the romantic-comedy genre and embracing it. “The New Romantic” is funny, but only sheepishly or in passing (“We hated each other for the first few months,” Blake’s roommate mutters, “but then Philip Seymour Hoffman died”), and the emotional turns are rushed for a movie that seems to leave so much on the table.
It’s a testament to Stone’s sensibilities — and to Barden’s performance — that you want to see these characters stretched out over the course of a 10-episode season, but it’s to the movie’s detriment that they feel so condensed here, various scenes just sloshing into each other without a clear sense of flow. In a sense, “The New Romantic” succumbs to the same nervous uncertainty that gnaws at its heroine, so anxious about how it compares to pre-existing stories that it misses a few golden opportunities to tell one of its own. Blake has more going for her than she may realize; she and Stone are probably both just getting started.
In the meantime, this may be a quick and dirty debut, but there’s something ineffably pure about how it portrays someone learning the give-and-take of getting what she wants. In an age when there’s an app for everything, it’s nice to see such a comforting reminder that we’re ultimately all just dealing with ourselves.
“The New Romantic” premiered at SXSW 2018. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.