College sex is weird and awkward. We’re barely into the process of discovering our identities and suddenly we’re thrust into this strange world of one night stands, hook ups, fuck buddies, bad sex, and incompatibility. Looking back, it’s a wonder any of us made it out of that time and place with any semblance of sexual dignity remaining.
Writer/director Carly Stone captures this phase perfectly in her new film, her first feature, The New Romantic. With it, she announces herself as a unique new voice in romantic comedies, one that’s not afraid to pay homage to Nora Ephron or step outside of her shadow to explore new dimensions of romance and sexuality. Unflinchingly honest, The New Romantic is a poignant exploration about dating, love, sex, and discovering what it is we want from all of it.
The New Romantic follows budding journalist Blake (Jessica Barden) as she attempts to make a name for herself as a writer for her college newspaper. She writes a sex column, The Hopeless Romantic, which is on the verge of getting the axe for being too unsexy. Soon, however, she meets Morgan (Camila Mendes), a self-described “sugar baby,” who engages in sexual relationships with men in exchange for gifts. Intrigued by this new angle, Blake finds herself in a sugar baby relationship with Ian (Timm Sharp), a business professor at her school, leading her down a path of self-discovery and growth.
This is a premise that might turn some people off from the film, but Stone handles it with an almost radical honesty and complete lack of judgment. We are then forced to wonder for ourselves, what, exactly, is a relationship? Is a relationship, sexual or otherwise, based around gifts inherently wrong or a form of prostitution? Are relationships themselves not inherently transactional in nature? Is there even a difference between a traditional relationship and one such as the one we see here?
Along the way, Stone deftly avoids condemnation of this choice in relationship direction, even as Blake’s path leads her into emotional peril. Barden, for her part, does a remarkable job at portraying the nuances of Blake’s journey and growth of understanding. She is an incredibly charming and delightful actress who gives Blake sense of agency and emotional realism. She plays her part honestly, making it resonate and giving us something to relate to, even if we can’t relate to or disagree with her relationship choices.
She and Stone make a great team, and she’s the perfect touch to bring Stone’s deceptively complex script to life. Together they create a story that’s a fantastic homage to rom-com classics without falling into the typical trappings of the genre. Stone’s take on the formula is a fresh and charming look at sex and relationships that isn’t afraid to shy away from deeper questions. It’s a wonderful achievement for a first feature that she hopefully repeats as her career moves forward.