starring Jessica Barden, Hayley Law, Brett Dier, Camila Mendes
written and directed by Carly Stone
by Alice Stoehr Sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw wakes up in a hotel room after a fling with a Frenchman to find a thousand dollars on the nightstand. This is midway through "The Power of Female Sex," episode five of HBO's "Sex and the City". She summons her friends, sensualist Samantha and hard-headed Miranda, to ask them, "What exactly about me screams 'whore'?" Samantha counsels keeping the money; Miranda tosses around the word "hooker"; and Carrie weighs the gesture as either "an incredible compliment or an incredible insult." The episode has little to say about sex work and the attendant stigma beyond articulating some knee-jerk squeamishness. Twenty years have passed since then in the realms of feminism and pop culture. Twenty years, yet here's The New Romantic, a romcom with the same level of nuance on the subject of sex for money. Its heroine is Blake (Jessica Barden), a college senior who writes about her sparse sex life for the school paper. With the editor poised to take her column away, she tries to spice it up by interviewing a local "sugar baby"--a young woman who barters dates for luxury. It's not long before Blake herself is sipping wine opposite Ian (Timm Sharp), a well-off professor twice her age. Nor is it long before she, as a Nora Ephron devotee, starts to worry she might be sacrificing romance for the sake of journalistic material.
Maybe this weak writing is Stone's way of showing mercy to Blake. It has her feel bad for a single scene then allows her a facile resolution. The New Romantic is undoubtedly a nice movie. Even its photography is nice, drawing out the shadows on Barden's body in the pale light of dawn. A couple of tracking shots are slightly graceful, though the wide frame often means a lot of wasted space, especially in the conversational medium shots that crowd the film. The crew shot on the campus of Laurentian University and in the surrounding city of Sudbury, Ontario, a few hours of north of Stone's native Toronto. Establishing shots render it as a picturesque town with sprawling pine forests beside it. The film itself leaves the setting generic. The story's about not about a particular place, but the sexual hazards facing women in college in 2018. Given which, it's surprisingly timid when it comes to the mechanics of sex itself. Outside of the sex scenes, which are brief and face-focused, an utterance of the phrase "hand job" is as graphic as it gets. Most discussion of sex stays in the abstract, especially in Blake's voiceover, which--like Carrie Bradshaw's--reads selections of her column's dubious prose. With writing this vague, how could a woman hope to process her experiences as a sugar baby? And how could a movie hope to say anything at all?