Carly Stone may be a fledgeling director, but her debut film wears its ambitions on its sleeve. The New Romantic compares itself to classic rom-coms, but deals with complex ideas of sex work, consent and journalistic ethics. It recalls another Canadian coming of age romance, Juno in its tone, with a cast of young actors who are sure to follow a similar and successful career trajectory and a Special Jury Recognition at SXSW Film Festival. Something apparently subversive and modern, but stylized as sweet.
Blake, played by Jessica Barden, is a college undergrad with a cherub face and earnestness to match. Despite her lack of experience, she has a willingness to test her own boundaries and employs this in service of her sex column at the student paper. Barden is incredibly likable in this role and manages to make lines that could sound coquettish or ditsy sound grounded and unpretentious. When the man she is seeing lays it on thick with his understanding of the difference between vinyl and CDs, she replies, “I like the covers.” Scenes like this set up a clear tension between Blake being infantilized despite her admirable resolve as a young person.
The men in the film are, for once, quite typecast. It’s nice to know that I don’t need anything beyond a 23 year old boy’s fawning over a VICE exposé on iowaska or a rich dude listening to electroswing to understand their characters.
Unfortunately, the main crux of the film isn’t handled with as much finesse. Blake falls into the world of becoming a “sugar baby” where much time and dialogue is spent on determining whether or not she is a “prostitute.” It’s a realistic question for our naive and relatively affluent lead, but asking it demands further excavation than The New Romantic is prepared to do. While the film isn’t outright condemning of anyone’s choices, it settles on letting Blake out of her conundrum by way of a traditional romance. The film never confronts the complex experiences Blake has, but instead sets up an untrue dichotomy where intimacy is the opposite of sex work. It takes the easy way out.
The New Romantic seems to fall back into the age old question “love or money?” without grappling with the issues of agency or, for that matter, money. Still, with a real charming lead, it’s an enjoyable coming of age film that considers the ways we test ourselves in youth.