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Jessica Barden plays Blake Conway, an aspiring journalist, hopeless romantic and college senior who is terrified of graduating, in The New Romantic.

Elevation Pictures

  • The New Romantic
  • Directed by: Carly Stone
  • Written by: Carly Stone and Kyle Mann
  • Starring: Jessica Barden, Hayley Law, Brett Dier, Timm Sharp
  • Classification: NA
  • 82 minutes

rating

Modern dating is an existential hellscape. If you are hardwired to get a little weepy as Billy Crystal sprints through the streets of New York on New Year’s Eve, moments before he confesses to Meg Ryan that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, an eggplant emoji and the vagaries of a “u up?” text will never suffice. Tinder has killed romance dead, but the Netflix and Chill generation needs romantic comedies more than ever – if only to remember what romance actually looks like.

In the face of these super-dark times, 2018 has been a landmark year for the genre. Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon was the first studio film to feature a gay teen love story, while Netflix’s “Summer of Love” programming, which included the canon-worthy Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, brought in more than 80 million viewers to the streaming service.

Rom coms keep our faith in love at a time when a phone call is the big romantic gesture. This makes The New Romantic (if the title is not a Taylor Swift reference, it should be) an interesting counterpoint. The intriguing, watchable Canadian rom coms, written and directed by newcomer Carly Stone and a winner of a Special Jury Prize at SXSW, is about a university-aged journalist named Blake (The End of the F***ing World’s Jessica Barden) who finds herself exchanging sex for gifts. A “sugar baby” who loves Nora Ephron movies, Blake is also a writer with her own campus column about the millennial dating experience.

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Framed with a Sex and the City-style voiceover that posits the story we’re about to watch as her final column, Blake spends her last year of college clouded in confusion. Her sex column is seemingly important to her, but she isn’t having any. When her editor (Avan Jogia) rightly cancels it, the only thing that made Blake interesting becomes eradicated. Although graduation looms, Blake doesn’t care about her future – the pursuit of love, sex and power is more important. And so, a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger (Camila Mendes) leads Blake toward a quid-pro-quo relationship with a rich economics professor (Timm Sharp, unfortunately stilted).

The professor bestows a Vespa scooter and a glittering bracelet upon Blake in exchange for a girlfriend experience, but the most valuable thing he gives her is a salacious story to tell. Stone’s film then kicks into high gear as Blake tries on a new identity as a gonzo journalist (even dressing up as Hunter S. Thompson at a Halloween party), until she has to reconcile the emptiness of her transactional romance with her own ideals.

Stone asks an important question here: If a guy calls when he says he will, makes concrete plans in advance and takes you to tapas restaurants, does it matter if he also treats you like a prostitute?

Pretty Woman aside, this is new territory for the rom com, one that’s worth supporting, especially when you consider it was made in the Canadian film system where female-fronted comedies by young creators (Stone is 28) are a rarity. Like its floundering protagonist, the film has so much potential, including an ensemble of cool millennials (Riverdale’s Hayley Law and Jane the Virgin’s Brett Dier ooze charisma as Blake’s roommate and age-appropriate love interest, respectively), gauzy cinematography, a slick synth-y soundtrack and some pivotal scenes that shade a young woman’s relationship to sex and power in approximately 50 shades of grey.

Yet Stone’s drive to make a crowd-pleaser (which her film remains, despite its flaws) means her story can’t get too dark. She won’t even investigate how Blake actually feels about what she’s going through, or what she does desire from sex or a relationship, and the film suffers for it, despite its charming lead. In some scenes – playing Dance Dance Revolution with her roommate, bantering with Dier on the bleachers – Barden sinks into her character, becoming brash, dorky and physical. This girl is really fun to watch. But when she’s out with the professor, she plays Blake like a verrrrrry sexxxxy baby, her infantilism and helplessness seemingly the source of her sexual viability.

It is weird to look back and realize that men most wanted to date you at 22 because you were so easily taken advantage of – that a woman is never so attractive as when she’s considered young, dumb and vulnerable. As the romantic comedy enters the #MeToo era, it’s imperative for young filmmakers to investigate the fraught power dynamics between men and women by actually showing the emotional weight of these experiences.

As sincere and entertaining as it is, The New Romantic makes the classic university mistake of trying to ace the exam by cramming the night before.

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The New Romantic opens across Canada on Oct. 19.

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