There was much discussion & hand-wringing about the death of the modern rom-com around the time that Obvious Child revived the genre in 2014 with a newfound emotional honesty & political bent. Since then, the traditional rom-com has made something of a lowkey comeback in films ranging in scale from small-budget Netflix streamers like Set It Up & To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to big studio political gambles like Love, Simon & Crazy Rich Asians. Few have directly wrestled with the formula & legacy of the traditional rom-com the way that Obvious Child did, however, choosing instead to participate in the rom-com ritual without self-aware critique (beyond a significant shift in representation politics). The New Romantic is not that kind of traditionalist rom-com; it openly interrogates & subverts the romantic escapism of its chosen genre in the way that Obvious Child did, just with a new political topic to drive its central conflict: sugar babies & sugar daddies. The New Romantic continually cites the Nora Ephron rom-com as a reference point (with specific titles like When Harry Met Sally & Sleepless in Seattle lengthily discussed in its script), but it undercuts any & all head-over-heels romance with aggressively Millennial, non-judgmental, transactional, blasé (and occasionally disastrous) sex work. There are plenty of rom-coms being produced in the modern era, but few feel this modern.
The End of the Fucking World’s Jessica Barden stars as an aspiring journalist college student, frustrated both by the debt her education is sinking her into and the uninspiring dating pool populated by her peers. She uses her sex advice column in the school newspaper to declare romance dead after a few unfulfilling Tinder dates, which leads to her column’s cancellation. With the encouragement of her roommate (Riverdale’s Hayley Law) and a new chance acquaintance (Camila Mendes, also from Riverdale), she decides to win her column back (and thus increase her chances for tuition scholarships) by venturing into bro-friendly, Vice style gonzo journalism in a new, uneasy life as a “sugar baby.” Entering a transactional relationship with a much older, much wealthier man, she begins having sex in exchange for lavish gifts (and professional opportunities). This opens the film to a “very zeitgeisty” conversation about sex work & the transactional nature of all romance. It also subverts the schmaltz of the traditional, Nora Ephron-style rom-com by depicting a developing “romance” that looks chivalrously orchestrated on the surface but is actually a business transaction with little-to-no emotional development. This is tricky thematic territory that’s been attempted before but, unlike in Pretty Woman, The New Romantic sticks to its guns in not allowing the temptation of genuine romance to overtake the transactional sex work dynamics of its premise. It remains honest about the separation between the two, sometimes uncomfortably so.
Politically speaking, this movie can play a little iffy, depending on how much weight you want to give this one sugar baby experience as a representation of all sugar baby/sugar daddy relationship dynamics everywhere. Our naïve, in-over-her-head, overly romantic protagonist is not fit for the business, and ultimately has a negative experience with her short life getting pampered by older men in exchange for sex. The movie never judges her for experimenting with sex work, however, letting the fault for her few disastrous sexual mishaps fall entirely on the shoulders of the shady older men involved. It also goes out of its way to offer a counterpoint in a fellow sugar baby character who wholeheartedly enjoys her transactional-sex lifestyle without apology. If you want a more politically aggressive take on this Millennial sex work subject matter, you’re much better off looking to Cam. Cam is also much more interested in the sex itself than The New Romantic, which is more tied up in romance & identity than anything resembling eroticism. The New Romantic has no qualms discussing the benefits nor the flaws of sugar babies & their financial supporters. Even its casting of the childlike Barden (who makes for an uncomfortably young 26) feels intentionally provocative, especially when she’s zipping around town in an adorable bike helmet. The movie is more about her character’s sugar baby experience than the sugar baby concept at large, however, no matter how “zeitgeisty” the subject is.
The New Romantic is uncomfortably honest about how its naïve, Nora Ephron-obsessed protagonist is not emotionally prepared for transactional sex work, but its tone as a deliberate Ephron descendent is still true to genre formula. The film is often super cute in the way most head-over-heels romances are, even if its subject matter comes off as largely cynical about the usefulness of modern romance. It’s a character-driven piece about a lovably open, vulnerable character in a modern world that’s unkind to vulnerability – allowing its politics & genre critiques to derive naturally from that conflict in a smart, endearing fashion.