In “The New Romantic,” Blake (Jessica Barden) writes the most prudish sex column in the history of college newspapers. Raised on Nora Ephron and Jane Austen, she cuts her insufficiently amorous dates short and opines on the death of romance. But when Blake meets a woman who trades sex for gifts — a “sugar baby” — the column takes on new life. Through her new acquaintance, Blake is introduced to a wealthy author and investor, Ian (Timm Sharp), and then writes about the transactional relationship she starts with him.
The writer-director Carly Stone pulls off an impressive trick in her first feature by shooting a story about money on a low budget. Blake’s negotiations with wealth and power are communicated through simple choices in design. Stone finds a perfectly fitted summer dress that allows Blake to pass among the rich, but by contrasting her bare-bones dorm with the self-consciously minimalist style of Ian’s bachelor pad, Stone also elegantly shows the imbalance of power in their relationship.
When the dialogue addresses Blake’s choices, the effect is like a needle scratch on one of Ian’s vintage records. Blake obsesses over her dynamic with Ian, imploring friends to reassure her that she is not a hooker. Stone never introduces a perspective that might push back at Blake’s disparaging attitude toward prostitution. So, unlike the sensibly romantic heroines Blake admires, she is never confronted by her own hypocrisies. Over time, even the soft lighting appears to wallow with her in sanctimony. Mirroring its green protagonist, “The New Romantic” presents an image of sophistication while playing with ideas that are out of its depth.