Nora Ephron makes an unlikely cameo in indie flick The New Romantic, but not in the way you think. Her legacy of fictional, swoon-worthy love is a reference of Blake’s (Jessica Barden), an aspiring journalism student, who finds herself chasing after a “Sleepless in Seattle” romance in the most exasperating of ways.
So naive it’ll make your teeth hurt, Blake is grappling with anxiety over her upcoming college graduation when she chances upon a local ‘sugar baby’ scheme where older men, or ‘sugar daddy’s,’ pay younger women for their company. Under the guise of wanting to get her college newspaper column about love and sex reinstated (canceled by Matt, the paper’s editor-in-chief for bland content), the inexperienced student gets involved with Ian (Timm Sharp), a wealthy author, investor, and certifiable sugar daddy. Her goal? To write about her risque experiences, get her column back and win a $50,000 journalism competition.
Let’s stop right there with the plot synopsis and dive into the analysis (also, frankly, because there’s little else to a meandering story where a girl with a doe-eyed appeal seeks validation via a glossed-over form of prostitution). Particulars are demanding to be addressed.
First and foremost, it’s nearly impossible not to roll your eyes at how impossibly naive the titular character is. Blake and her continuous denial that a paid-for relationship with Ian doesn’t make her a hooker manages to irk the viewer, not compel empathy. As a direct result, her character is unable to grow in the way we would expect for a movie centering on a young woman’s pursuit of meaning. For how can an audience generate compassion and relate to someone who is unwilling to come to terms with her own actions? And why does it read like director Carly Stone is studiously avoiding asking any big questions?
“…grappling with anxiety over her upcoming college graduation when she chances upon a local ‘sugar baby’ scheme…”
Lastly – a minor grievance. In what elite, nonsensical world does this cast live in where college journalism students are in the running for a $50,000 award? A quick Google search will show you that prizes of such an exorbitant sum are few and far in-between. They also are reserved for long-term craftsmen or craftswomen who have demonstrated a lifetime of exemplary, in-depth reporting — not individuals who write dating columns for their school newspaper. This plot component also begs to justify the protagonist’s decision to delicately pimp herself out in the name of her story.
In the wise words of the millennial Internet: “weird flex but ok,” Carly Stone.
It is less about the story and more about the storyteller in offbeat rom-coms like these. Barden gives it her all — in a wide-eyed, overeager way that’s refreshingly opposite to her portrayal of the moody, devil-may-care leading lady in The End of the F***ing World. In that sense, she unveils a rare ability to charm the audience irrespective of a set role.
Such versatility obvious in The New Romantic should catapult the actress from emerging name to breakout star. One look at her IMDb page suggests that this is already underway — Barden has recently wrapped production on Jungleland, a film that will co-star Charlie Hunnam. Sharp as her older, greying, decadently rich benefactor is flawless. He manages to be both creepy and attentive, in a way that puts him above Blake’s other suitors while simultaneously cements him so far into his predatory game.
“…mesh of acting chops works exponentially well, with each character adding their own flavor
Riverdale’s Camila Mendes also makes a gratifying (but minor) appearance as Morgan, a self-assured, beautiful classmate who convinces Blake to get started with the neighborhood call girl system. Joining Mendes is her fellow Riverdale cast member Hayley Law, who plays Nikki, Blake’s encouraging roommate. Another CW alum is Jane The Virgin actor Brett Dier. Dier fills the spot of well-intentioned Jacob, fellow student and aspiring journalist who Blake competes with and (naturally) falls for.
Rounding off the core cast of network television stars is Avan Jogia, who also had a reoccurring role in the CW’s Aliens in America. With the exception of Barden and Sharp — and let’s be damn truthful, both are thespian goldmines — The New Romantic’s cast is a CW-studded roster. Oddly enough, the mesh of acting chops works exponentially well, with each character adding their own flavor to this melting pot of ill-advised college adventures.
Director Carly Stone’s The New Romantic has nothing on Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, but that’s okay because it’s not trying to compete. Rich with talent, this flick is missing that fundamental thing that sets one rom-com apart from the rest; a lasting feeling that what you’re watching matters, or means something.
The New Romantic (2018) Written by Carly Stone. Directed by Carly Stone. Starring Jessica Barden, Timm Sharp, Avan Jogia, Camila Mendes, Hayley Lew, Brett Dier.
6 out of 10 stars