What: The New Romantic
Where: Edmonton International Film Festival
When: October 3rd, 2018
Director: Carly Stone
Screenwriters: Carly Stone, Kyle Mann
Cast: Jessica Barden, Hayley Law, Camila Mendez, Brett Dier, Timm Sharp, Avan Jogia
Blake (Jessica Barden) rides her bicycle down a suburban street while her small voice reflects on life as a hopeless romantic. Her thoughts sound private and intimate in my ears. These are the secrets she wants to share with the largest audience possible.
Director Carly Stone’s debut feature The New Romantic proposes one way to deal with the bleak future of a soon-to-be humanities graduate. To prove herself a journalist worthy of her own romance column, Blake opts out of traditional romance and enters a relationship with a sugar daddy. But Gucci and Yves Saint-Laurent aren’t on her wish list. Rather, all she wants is a good story.
The New Romantic feels very much like a directorial debut. Stone’s growing pains show mostly in the first half. Dialogue feels bare where it could be interesting and snappy, the comedic potential of actors like Brett Dier and Avan Jogia is stunningly underused, and the slow and uncertain pacing detracts from the film’s greatest strength: a realistic portrayal of college life.
This realism undergirds an honest, unglamourous take on young adult romance, ranging from moments of anticlimactic flirting to clumsy sex. The film’s entrance into the world of sugar daddies offers a great juxtaposition to this, teasing us with lavish romance. But when Blake’s experiences slowly strip away romance’s façade, we discover that it’s the dull, awkward, complicated relationships that grow into the most meaningful ones.
Stone and Mann’s greatest screenwriting accomplishment is in its nuanced male characters. Both the preliminary antagonist (Avan Jogia) and the more serious wrongdoer (Timm Sharp) prove how a little bit of dominance in a relationship can strip the other person’s power completely. They don’t have to be evil or manipulative to cause emotional damage. They just have to misuse their power.
The film relies on tried-and-true rom-com tropes that feel forced at the beginning, like a cry for Nora Ephron’s seal of approval. But The New Romantic knows what it’s doing: baiting us with these genre staples and skewing them to reveal harsh realities. In one scene, a dreamy wedding with swelling music oozes with the promise that romance is alive and eternal, until the newlywed groom makes a sexual advance on Blake.
Here, genre is only a skeleton for something more complicated than a will-they-won’t-they story. The meat of it is Blake’s journey to understanding what it means to really be with someone before she finds the Tom Hanks to her Meg Ryan. She learns, with pain that translates viscerally onscreen, how dangerous being a sugar baby can be. Barden, a seasoned actor, lets us feel every minute of it with the perfect amount of subtlety for a 21st-century heroine.
The New Romantic is a roadmap for the healthy, human relationship. It’s a chosen — not magical and serendipitous — connection. It isn’t transactional or contractual. It’s acting selfless even when you don’t feel like it. It’s willingness to open up and readiness to listen.