Acute technological advancement has proffered up new, albeit problematic conceptions as regards human interaction, despite an increased, viable sustainability as far as globalization, mobilization, and efficient worldwide communication. But the onslaught of social media over the past decade, a tidal wave of increasingly derivative hook-up apps as a logical extension of the ‘connection initially suggested by Facebook, has only become a bane to the romantic notion of romance, sold to us through centuries of classical literature, poetry, and eventually pop songs, or contemporary box office ‘women’s pictures,’ such as the now vintage American Sweetheart icons like Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts. All of these venues have set certain standards, certain manipulations, and nearly all of them are incredibly false, dangerously doctored, even maddeningly inept. And worse, it’s been even harder to capture the mood of such a swiftly changing social interaction landscape, especially as regards the generation coined millennials, a group of youngsters coming up in the world who have seemingly found succor in the new now casualness of love as a revolving door of romantic interludes. Perhaps it’s because many of us have little interest in the inherent navel gazing which would accompany a realistic portrait of young pretty people and their way of interacting—because we’d be staring at them as they stare at their smart phones. But one of the most compelling and sincerely engaging examples of this has to be Drake Doremus’ latest film Newness, a project quickly conceived and filmed, inspired by the death of actor Anton Yelchin (to whom the film is dedicated and who starred in Doremus’ 2011 film Like Crazy, heretofore a beloved indie standard on the propinquity problems regarding love). In his latest, a young heterosexual couple attempts to navigate a relationship within a new social media crazed era of casual hook-ups and no strings attached interaction.
Pharmacy tech Martin (Nicholas Hoult) and rehabilitation therapist Gabi (Laia Costa) are two young twentysomethings grappling with the dwindling shelf-life that is modern romance amidst the hook-up app culture. Both engaged in a series of non-committal flings in Los Angeles, they meet one night after both experiencing milquetoast interaction earlier the same evening. A night of unexpected flirtatious chemistry eventually leads to a complicated series of situations leading the couple through the fluctuations of an open relationship.
What is perhaps most refreshing about Doremus’ Newness, despite its incontestable heterosexual perspective, is how hook-up apps have contributed to the erosion of archaic attitudes regarding monogamy in the heteronormative assertions of what a relationship is supposed to look like. For any couple, no matter the sexual orientation, to exist outside of the perceived standard is difficult, even when, admittedly, it’s a standard most people find oppressive. And so, Newness has, perhaps accidentally, a universality to it considering young straight people now having access to the same platforms to consume one another as casually as gay men have been so furiously doing over the past decade. In the realm of heterosexual cinematic coupledom, Newness feels invigorating compared to something like Katie Aselton’s The Freebie (2010), which is only a few years older but seems grueling, torturous and hopeless as regards challenging the status quo.
Doremus and DP Sean Stiegemeier refreshingly keep the film focused tightly on their characters, rather than letting them disappear into (or pose as cyphers for) their iPhones. The devices play an important, catalyzing role, but aren’t the main focus, allowing for a strong emotional pulse as we watch Gabi and Martin go through (perhaps familiar) stages to anyone who has felt themselves devoted to another’s happiness and pleasurable fulfillment. The Los Angeles setting, a sprawling, contemporary metropolis filled with interactions regarded as transactions, and filled with transitory personalities constantly hustling for either money or fame rather than something as complicated and time consuming as love, is the perfect arena to explore this modern ennui. Shots of Silver Lake, Echo Park, and downtown Los Angeles add to the film’s gilded beauty, and we can sense the pulse of the city and its nightlife oozing around the central couple, who allow themselves to be more defined by ‘dating’ than their occupations, even.
Perhaps Doremus’ most succinctly tantalizing and compelling film to date, Newness does fit neatly, even predictably within his already well-established oeuvre. It will garner most obvious comparison to 2011’s breakout Like Crazy, in which Anton Yelchin stars as a young man who carries on a lengthy long-distance romance with Felicity Jones in the UK, only to find his dreams and fantasies crumble. There is a different sort of crumbling in Newness, as well as a more mature sense of the constant rebuilding and frequent adaptation which must occur within any successful relationship framework. Screenwriter Ben York Jones (who penned Doremus’ Like Crazy and 2013’s Breathe In) does an admirable job building believable stages of experimentation and delusion in this central relationship, although many sequences feel the performers have been given room to improvise.
The irony of Newness rightly depicts how our constant online interconnectedness has only caused a deep seated sense of isolation, and like many of Doremus’ other films, two people must overcome a significant obstacle in order to be together (distance; marriage to another; a dystopic sanction against emotion). Eerily, his latest is perhaps more comparable to 2015’s futuristic Equals, also headlined by Hoult in a world where emotion and love have been completely eradicated. Here, the performer gives a well-rounded performance as a young man with considerable familial emotional baggage, and as his counterpart, Spanish actress Laia Costa (headliner of Sebastian Schipper’s single-take wonder Victoria, 2015) proves once more what a captivating screen presence she is as a young woman attempting to figure out what exactly she wants from life and love.
A tangential flirtation and eventually fatal distraction she develops with a non-committal older wealthy man played Danny Huston (perfectly cast) also unfolds naturally, building to a certain wisdom quite rare in cinematic endeavors on what people want and what they choose. A pit-stop moment where the couple visits a book reading by a woman exploring the nature and consequences of engaging in an open relationship yields the film’s best advice, “Think of it not as the destination, but the layover.”
Reviewed on January 25th at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres Program. 117 Min.