'Newness': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of Sundance
Deeply felt performances carry a dramatic examination of amorous foolishness.

Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa experiment with an open relationship in Drake Doremus's latest drama.

In Drake Doremus' 2011 breakthrough Like Crazy, a beautiful pair of young lovers (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones) face a situation in which they should break up, but don't — creating much misery, however bittersweet and beautifully photographed, for themselves. In Newness, the director (and his Like Crazy co-writer Ben York Jones) again puts a young couple through self-inflicted trials, inspiring viewers who've been around the block to wince at the pain sure to come. While it (appropriately) lacks the first-love poetry of the earlier film, the picture benefits from two strong lead performances (from Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa) and stands a good chance of connecting with viewers their age.

Hoult and Costa are Martin and Gabi, Angelenos whose nights are filled with internet-enabled hookups. Both use a Tinder-like app called Winx (users swipe up and down to choose prospective partners instead of left and right), and an efficient opening montage shows how consequential (or not) this is: Each swipe that leads to a valentine icon on a character's phone is followed by a split-second of heavy-breathing coitus, then it's back to shots of swiping.

But when the two meet one night, each having just bailed on a going-nowhere rendezvous, they find themselves accidentally having an actual date: a drink-'til-the-bar-closes, walk-around-'til-dawn, collapse-into-intimacy epic that leads immediately to something with all the signs of being real. She moves in, and neither seems to miss the "dtf" digital world. Until the first time, after a double date, that Martin says "I'm so tired" when Gabi wants to make out — and both roll over to opposite sides of the bed, each illuminated by a glowing phone.

Doremus and Jones plant some land mines in the couple's path here, having them fight over emotional intimacy right before (in a relationship-movie cliche) each gets an opportunity to cheat on the same night. The episode only makes them realize they want to stay together, but this pair's therapeutic path leads to a dubious conclusion: Accepting that they both miss the thrill of flirting with someone new, they decide to explore with each other's permission. She gets him to flirt with another woman at a party; he spies as she goes on an internet date for his amusement. Inevitably, one of these encounters (with a rich lawyer played, with surprising finesse, by Danny Huston) leads to something that will make the other jealous.

Here's the thing. Doremus and Jones believe they're telling a very of-the-moment story, whose conflict originates in the ease of tech-enabled hookups. But this story could have been set in the Swinging Seventies or, with minor changes, in many other historical moments when lovers commonly had the luxury of acting on their dissatisfaction with monogamy. The lure of "newness," in the dating-app era, typically ends budding affairs long before they get to the point at which Martin and Gabi go haywire: The seeming infinity of choices online makes it nearly impossible for many 21st century daters to overlook an irritant — the obnoxious laugh, the imperfect figure, the insubstantial bank account — and get to the point of even considering cohabitation. With so many fish in the sea, surely perfection — or at least someone more perfect than this person I just hooked up with  — is just a few more swipes away, no?

Newness doesn't dramatize this novel crisis, nor does it come close to generating the humanity-is-doomed horror of the Vanity Fair article (by Nancy Jo Sales) Doremus says inspired the film. But as a sympathetic look at two likeable lovers who don't know what's good for them, it's enough to give us a rooting interest — even if we're rooting for the two protagonists to accept the consequences of their mistakes and move on.

Production company: Scott Free
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Laia Costa, Danny Huston, Courtney Eaton, Matthew Gray Gubler, Albert Hammond Jr.
Director: Drake Doremus
Screenwriter: Ben York Jones
Producers: Drake Doremus, Ben York Jones, Michael Schaefer, Michael Pruss, Robert George, John Finemore
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, James Hoppe, Mason Novick, Elizabeth Grave
Director of photography: Sean Stiegemeier
Production designer: Katie Byron
Costume designer: Alana Morshead
Editor: Lisa Gunning
Composer: Gwilym Gold
Casting directors: Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: Rena Ronson, UTA

116 minutes

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