“Romance is dead,” proclaims Blake Conway (Jessica Barden), a college senior and aspiring journalist who writes an anonymous romance column for the school’s paper. While committed to the idea that a journalist should know their subject and thus drawing heavily from her own experiences for her contributions, Blake’s editors are less than thrilled with her seemingly lackluster dating life, which offers little in the way of engagement for their readers. As Blake’s roommate (Hayley Law) points out, “you’re writing a sex column with no sex.”
Faced with the threat of losing her column, and thus her shot at the coveted Thompson award (named for the godfather of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, whose influence is felt heavily throughout the film), Blake searches desperately for a new angle. Enter Morgan (Camila Mendes), a confident young woman with whom Blake crosses paths en route to check out a local band, and who opens Blake’s eyes to the exciting and mysterious sugar baby lifestyle. Before long, Blake has entered into an “arrangement” with a professor (Timm Sharp), but finds that navigating the complex emotions that come from intimacy is a much more daunting task than she anticipated.
Written and directed by Carly Stone, The New Romantic is both hilarious and heartbreaking in its authenticity, with Barden – best known for her role in Netflix’s dark comedy The End of the F*cking World – showcasing tremendous vulnerability and painting a genuinely convincing portrait of an ambitious girl with a story to tell. Each of the onscreen relationships are believable, but the most true-to-life moments come from the scenes Barden shares with Law, and I would’ve gladly watched an entirely separate film about these two girls just hanging out and goofing around.
Despite its important role in the narrative, The New Romantic isn’t really about being a sugar baby – which may disappoint viewers looking for something a bit on the salacious side. Instead, it’s about a young woman trying to find her voice, both as a writer and as a person, and in that regard it’s a successful endeavor.
Jessica Barden anchors an amusing story about an aspiring journalist who dips her toe into the waters of the "sugar baby" lifestyle to spice up her romance column. Not nearly as salacious as the subject matter suggests - and that's a benefit.