Maybe every generation puts its unique stamp on “the romantic comedy,” but odds are that each new posse just figures out what Jane Austen knew 200 years ago.
Thus, “The New Romantic,” a thin collegiate romance hung on the “sugar babies” concept. You’ve almost certainly heard of this college-coed-seeks-sugar-daddy phenomenon. “New Romantic” summarizes its appeal and takes the most predictable path to showing our sugar baby the down side.
Blake, played by Brit actress Jessica Barden of “Far from the Madding Crowd,” is 21 and looks 14 — 15 tops. She’s a rising senior with a sex column in the school paper, and the most boring sex life on campus.
She knows that her dad met her mom without Googling her or finding her on Match.com with a “witty bio” attached to her picture. That fact and “an unhealthy binge of Nora Ephron movies” in her youth has her idealistically wondering “What would my love story be?”
Which is why her “Hopeless Romantic” column is about to be canceled.
“It’s time to say goodbye to ‘grand gestures,'” she narrates, presumably from her column. “The grandest it gets these days is swiping right or left.” Cynicism doesn’t sell or lure the lads.
Her “foosball meetups” with college guys “who don’t even know how to go on a date” any more isn’t finding readers. Roommate and best friend Nikki (Hayley Law of “Riverdale” and “Altered Carbon”) sums it up in a sentence.
“You write a sex column with no sex.”
Then a mix-up with driver’s licenses at the liquor store introduces her to Morgan (Camila Mendes, also of “Riverdale”). And Morgan — put together, well-dressed and plainly coddled, is her introduction to this life of well-heeled men looking for young (very young) women, sex and dates without complications.
Why? Have you priced a college degree lately?
Yes, “Young girls are prostituting themselves to pay for college,” but once Blake moves past judging, she gets an earful on the upside. Morgan gets jewelry, fashion and “gifts” to the tune of $67,000 from the man she’s seeing.
And Blake? She’s pretty and Morgan is sure she could handle this, should she want.
“Am I a prostitute? No. Am I a gold digger? Maybe.” Morgan huffs that she’s “having a better time than these girls who get nothing more from a one night stand than the occasional pregnancy scare,” and unlike them, she’s not graduating under “a mountain of debt.”
That’s how Blake meets Ian (Tim Sharp), a well-off college professor looking for a student (not in his classes) he can carry on with.
As “Pretty Woman” and Jane Austen references pile up, as the “chivalrous” older man bedazzles Blake’s life, she writes about it and rationalizes.
“Wealthy older people supporting struggling younger ones is nothing revolutionary. Read any Jane Austen novel…Why does our society hate ‘gold diggers?’ Maybe relationships aren’t supposed to be about love, but about survival.”
And maybe she’ll get a college journalism prize for her suddenly edgy and topical column, a prize coveted by the one classmate/school paper colleague (Brett Dier) to show a romantic interest in Blake, “prostituting” herself or not.
There’s wit and the spark of life in the relationships Blake has with her peers in this world, funny little lectures on journalism — “Follow the story, not your feeling.” — from her older classmate/editor (Avan Jogia). “It’s not ‘This American Life,’ but it’s something.
Law handles the laid-back, effortlessly cool BFF role with panache. Blake bicycles to her assignations with Professor Ethics Violation. He gives her alternate transportation.
“A sex moped?” “A HOped!”
Writer-director Carly Stone (she writes for TV’s “Kim’s Convenience”) delivers a few clever turns of phrase, the odd cute joke and a knowing connection to college life’s modern pitfalls, where getting “black-out drunk” leads to “one night stands,” hazards only combated with “study drugs.”
“Big gestures” might be dead, but the attempt is worth a new verb to these kids — “We’re ”Sleepless in Seattling!'”
But I could do without the cliche of older academic explaining why vinyl is better than digital to a coed.
And Ms. Barden, 25 now but still looking like high school freshman year is right around the corner, creates an obstacle at the center of “The New Romantic” that she has little control of. She looks like a child. And putting her in the arms of an over-30 actor is just plain creepy.
Thank heavens they had the good sense to not get the least bit graphic with this, despite the subject matter.
Kudos on the mastering the accent and all, and she and her castmates do all right by the few bits of biting banter they get to play.
But parking a woman who looks like a pixie in on her way to junior high Spanish Club hobbles the marginal film that “New Romantic” was always destined to be.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual situations, drug references
Cast: Jessica Barden, Hayley Law, Annie Clark, Eva Link, Darren Eisnor, Brett Dier, Greg Hovanessian
Credits: Written and directed by Carly Stone. An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:22