Carly Stone’s feature directorial debut The New Romantic pays homage to classic love stories by exploring its protagonist’s passion for idealized Hollywood romance. The film begins sharply with our heroine Blake (Jessica Barden) declaring “romance is dead.” And while that may seem true in the age of social media, The New Romantic, with its humour and relatability, tries to demonstrate that love can be more exciting than just swiping right.
Blake is on a quest to find the love of her daydreams; she pines for the kind of relationships inspired by her favourite Nora Ephron movies When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. “If Harry met Sally in 2018, they’d just end up as fuck buddies,” she says, emphasizing her skepticism of modern dating and the current generation’s romantic illiteracy. It’s hard to disagree with her when a colleague at the school paper (Brett Dier) tells her he thinks Nora Ephron is “Zac Efron’s mom.”
Ironically, Blake is a sex columnist with no sex life, and so her editor (Avan Jogia) kills her column and assigns her music reviews. Just when Blake thinks she’ll be stuck writing about concerts forever, she meets a sugar baby named Morgan (Camilla Mendes) who gives her the hook she needs to impress her editor and revive her column. Morgan and Blake’s conversations become an interesting exploration of the misconceptions of sugar baby culture. Blake comes into the discourse from a place of ignorance, first seeing the sugar baby phenomena as negative and comparing it to sex work, with all the archaic prejudices implied towards both transactional arrangements. Morgan, in turn, makes an argument for her independence–showing Blake how little she actually knows about the world.
When Blake meets a sugar daddy (Timm Sharp) herself, there’s something about him that intrigues her – although she can’t quite put her finger on it. Despite the business-like nature of their potential arrangement, she becomes curious about the possibility for genuine romance. Once they start seeing each other, Blake is quickly seduced by her sugar daddy’s lavish romantic gestures. She naively believes he, with his age and sophistication, is her Tom Hanks. As he takes her to fancy restaurants, gives her thoughtful gifts and shows genuine interest in what she has to say, Blake begins to fall for him. She spends the rest of the film questioning if she’s experiencing a real connection.
Despite Blake’s thin characterization, Jessica Barden plays the character engagingly. She has a whimsical naivete about her delivery and performance that perfectly captures Blake’s ignorance about the realities of love. Her hopeless romantic heart doesn’t match the dating realities of 2018; she wants the Tom Hanks to her Meg Ryan. She wants to go Sleepless in Seattle-ing, where a guy would meet her at the top of the Empire State Building instead of a dive bar. She wants a guy who really wants to get to know her and is dismayed to find out that so many men just want sex.
The New Romantic uses classic romantic comedy imagery – the endless picnics, the joyous running through fields of yellow – to portray Blake’s daydreams of ideal romance. It then takes these syrupy images and uses them to demonstrate how expectation blinds reality. While many, like Blake, search for an epic love story, they forget what a healthy relationship looks like. The expectation that a relationship is a fulfillment of happiness is a naive one that ignores the fact that contentment can be found alone. It’s a timeless reality check. Still, with these elements working in its favour, the film still breezes by a bit too quickly. Its short runtime and simple script makes the story feel condensed and leaves the audience wanting more, especially when Blake finally does make a promising romantic connection with a man her age.
The New Romantic is a love story that actually tries to examine the complex nature of romance. A simple column became a life-changing experience that forces Blake to confront the artifice of her fantasies, see the realities of relationships, and learn how to get what she wants.