Dating in the digital age is, no doubt, a complicated affair. Bumble, Happn, OkCupid, Tinder, Hinge, Raya, Match, Coffee Meets Bagel, The League – there’s almost too many to name – each caters to a different style of single looking to orchestrate their own meet-cute. For some, this makes dating a far less complicated process, but, for others, it can just seem like an easy path to a booty call. That certainly seems to be the view of college sex columnist Blake Conway (Jessica Barden) in The New Romantic, the feature debut of writer/director Carly Stone, as she takes the leap from sexless single to full-on sugar baby.
When her college newspaper sex column “The Hopeless Romantic” is shut down after her latest entry gets panned by her editor Matt (Avon Jogia), Blake struggles to find a perspective that will not only be true to her own view of romance, but keep the interest of her readership. After a chance encounter at a liquor store introduces her to Morgan (Camila Mendes), a sugar baby looking to add a +1 to her current date, Blake begins to consider this aspect of dating as a potential story. Jumping right into it, the typically conservative Blake finds herself receiving jewelry, flowers, and even a moped from her sugar daddy, Ian (Timm Sharp), but as they spend more and more time together, she finds herself believing the role she took on for the story.
For the uninformed, a sugar baby is an individual involved in a transactional relationship with someone of greater economic means. While some immediately assume that the sugar baby-sugar daddy or mama relationship is a sex-for-pay arrangement, the reality tends to be more business-like. Though the sugar daddy/mama tends to offer the sugar baby gifts of travel, objects, or even cash, whether it is in exchange for sex depends on the agreement both parties enter into. As Blake jumps into this new world, the character of Morgan is used primarily to get her acclimated to the rules, but like in traditional relationships, each new sugar daddy arrangement comes with a new set of rules. Whether it’s because of Blake’s general lack of willingness to assume personal responsibility for her own choices or that she rushes into her first arrangement in the quest for a hot story to keep her column, and maybe earn a scholarship in the process, Blake jumps in without any thought for what she’s getting herself into.
One of the best things about the script for the story Stone co-created with with Kyle Mann, is that it’s as much about growing up as it is a modern romance. Blake is a young girl who wants to be swept off her feet like the lovers in films by her favorite real-life writer Nora Ephron, the creator of When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. Her expectation is that love is both spontaneous and hard-won, which conflicts against the more instant gratification-seeking members of the digital age. She’s romanticized romance to the point where literally nothing can measure up, until she begins her arrangement with Ian. Yet, it’s a business arrangement, not love which forces Blake to re-examine her own worth and perspective. Frankly, it’s an absolutely refreshing take on a rom-com/coming-of-age story because Blake is, for the most part, hard to endure. If not for Barden’s delightful presence and performance, Blake would be harder to root for, not because the character is nasty in any way or that she does anything that a male counterpart hasn’t done in cinema before, but because that, as a person, she’s quick to put the responsibility of her failures on others. Her column is shut down, she blames the editor. She wants a scholarship, she accuses a fellow writer of also signing up to undercut her. Ian doesn’t want a relationship, she becomes angry. When she begins to develop true agency, then Blake becomes someone to invest in. There’s an honestly terrible moment in Romantic that occurs between Blake and Ian which Stone, especially, deserves incredible kudos for the staging. It’s a love scene where the focus remains largely on Blake’s face. It’s not about the action, but about what Blake is feeling and all the things that lead up to that moment. It’s undeniably hard to watch but Barden and Stone ensure it is also hard to look away from. It’s a truly painful moment for the character which the script seems intent on using as the recognition of change and growth.
In support of Barden is a small crew of supporting actors who do a lot with very little. Brett Dier (Jane the Virgin tv series) is Jacob, a fellow writer on the college paper and potential love interest for Blake. Dier walks the line between goofy coworker and genuine friend, filling their all the Blake-Jacob scenes with the kind of back-and-forth born from awkwardness. Jogia (The Year of Spectacular Men) only has a handful of scenes and is hilarious in each one. His character is meant to represent the first hurdle for Blake to scale if she’s going to stop playing adult and actually be one, which makes his confrontation with Blake about her column simultaneously entertaining and significant to both of their characters. Sharp has the difficult job of playing the sugar daddy – an individual who appears as both the doting boyfriend-type and as someone upholding his end of a business deal. Though Ian’s oscillations between warm and cold seem strange to Blake, Sharp’s performance ensures that they make sense to the audience within the framework of the business arrangement. Something he understands clearly and she struggles with again and again. Again, it’s as much about Stone’s solid script as it is the performance attached to it. Sharp, like Barden, clearly trusts Stone to capture their characters as complex people instead of romantic tropes. Hayley Law (Riverdale) plays Blake’s roommate and closest confidant Nikki, and she steals every scene she’s in through sheer line delivery. Barden and Law have excellent chemistry together, which makes all their antics or conversations feel authentic and real. Strange as it is to acknowledge, there were more moments where the lack of Nikki was noticeable, which was not likely the intent in the script.
If there was something to question about the film, it’s the all-to-neat ending which seems to ignore an egregious event in order to end The New Romantic in a happy manner. Is it truthful? Quite possibly. Is it unsatisfying? Slightly. But is it enough to take away from the whole of the film – no. Carly Stone makes some really interesting choices in her first feature, the largest of which is telling a story of an unfinished lead, one who thinks they know everything, thinks they know better, yet must endure – possibly too much – in order to realize that they’re not only wrong, but is in need of a shift in perspective. These choices designate anything she works on next of immediate interest.
In select theaters November 9th, 2018.
Available via VOD and digital services November 13th, 2018.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.