Where to draw the line between friends with major benefits and something, say, slightly illegal? For college student and aspiring professional journalist Blake (Jessica Barden), the question seems more academic than practical, even when she’s the sugar baby dating a wealthy older man in return for some attractive perks.
Writer-director Carly Stone’s interest in the topic is only slightly more considered, since she’s really more interested in crafting an incisive millennial rom-com, but The New Romantic comes off as too forced and calculated. Setting the bar for the film impossibly high with repetitious references to Nora Ephron classics like Sleepless in Seattle, Stone shows she’s got spirit, but maybe not the best judgment, much like her protagonist.
Makes the state of romance look bleak indeed.
Blake’s small-scale social engineering experiment begins when she admits to herself that she’s facing a monumental life crisis, otherwise known among college seniors as graduation. With only a liberal arts degree from a nondescript university to show for her mountain of debt, she’s feeling something more than slight trepidation as the end of classes nears. Pure desperation might describe her mindset better — as a journalism major relegated to writing a sex column for the campus paper, she’s failing all too publicly. Without a relationship, or even the occasional hookup, to enliven her prose and her life, she’s left with scant material for her weekly pieces. Her declining page views prove what best friend Nikki (Hayley Law) has been trying to tell her: Worse than boring, now she’s just irrelevant.
A turnaround will require radical rethinking, and a prestigious journalism competition with a $50,000 award provides just the catalyst that Blake requires. Now she just needs a killer concept to craft a winning writing sample. Since the prize specifically celebrates gonzo journalism, she recognizes that a participatory style will be required, which leads her to hit on the sugar daddy-sugar baby angle. A chance encounter with a classmate provides just the introduction she needs to Ian (Timm Sharp), a well-off, mid-30s author and university business lecturer. Soon he’s wining and dining her at high-end restaurants and buying her generous gifts in return for, well, sex, basically.
Blake’s reports on her affair soon boost the popularity of her newspaper column and suddenly she’s a minor celebrity on campus. Clearly Stone would like us to believe that because Blake’s dynamic with Ian is an actual relationship that doesn’t involve the exchange of cash, then it’s a perfectly acceptable arrangement, rather than just a girlfriend experience. Once her game plan emerges more clearly, however, complications inevitably ensue with friends, colleagues and lovers.
Barden (Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World) displays an enthusiastic openness that’s at first more ingratiating than calculating, but as Blake’s plan begins to spin out of control, the actress doesn’t modulate the character’s responses sufficiently. If there’s a life lesson to be learned here, it appears Blake’s take-away is grab what you can, when you can, in case you don’t get a better offer. Sharp’s role is supporting in more ways than one, but he can’t seem to make it his own, playing Ian as an entitled intellectual without clear motivations for keeping a college mistress, other than convenience.
Despite betrayals, tears and reconciliations, Stone remains determined to give Blake a happy ending, otherwise, what would Ephron think? The machinations required to achieve this outcome are predictable from about scene three, but if expectations can be lowered sufficiently, perhaps not that disappointing.
Production companies: Drive Films, Jobro Productions, Notario, Independent Edge Films
Cast: Jessica Barden, Hayley Law, Timm Sharp, Brett Dier, Avan Jogia, Camila Mendes
Director-writer: Carly Stone
Producers: Kyle Mann, Jason Ross Jallet, Jonathan Bronfman, Michael Risley
Executive producers: Rob Connolly
Director of photography: Mike McLaughlin
Production designer: Melanie Garros
Costume designer: Judith Ann Clancy
Editor: Christine Armtrong
Music: Matthew O’Halloran
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)