‘Newness’ Review: Nicholas Hoult Finds Love and Sex in the Digital Age | Sundance 2017

     January 23, 2017

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Love is a universal emotion. It’s something every human being can relate to, which is why many of the best pieces of art are about this one topic. Filmmaker Drake Doremus has a knack for tackling love in an intimate way, putting his own spin on a specific relationship with each successive film. Like Crazy tackled young love and long-distance relationships; Breathe In chronicled forbidden love; and last year’s Equals highlighted the specific emotion itself against a sprawling sci-fi backdrop. But for his latest film, Newness, Doremus zeroes in on the act of love while chronicling what it’s like to navigate relationships in the age of dating apps and instant gratification. The film digs into a very specific relationship with an involving intimacy that’s present in his prior films, packed with striking imagery and high emotions, all buoyed by a pair of fantastic performances from Nicholas Hoult and newcomer Laia Costa.

Hoult plays Martin, a pharmacist who is knee-deep in the habit of using a new dating app. Living in New York gives Martin plenty of choice, and these one-night stands offer a new way of approaching relationships—which is what he’s searching for in the wake of a short marriage that ended badly. Costa, meanwhile, plays Gabi, a young woman also living in New York, also using the same dating app, who even goes about venturing on multiple dates in one night. As luck would have it, on one particular night both Martin and Gabi “swipe right” on each other, and they go on a date that finds them talking, kissing, and bumpin’ uglies until the early morning hours.

It’s at this point that I figured the film would give us a play-by-play of the initial relationship, focusing on that “bright and shiny” period when everything feels new and you can’t stand to be away from your partner. Refreshingly, Doremus doesn’t do this. Instead, he flashes over those initial stages to get to the “boring” period of a relationship, when you’re settled in, comfortable, and, finally, in a place where you’d rather sleep than have sex.

It’s here where Newness’ focus lies, that part of a relationship where you actually have to work for it. Unfortunately for Martin and Gabi, months of instant gratification and constant newness on their dating app makes this adjustment period quite difficult. After a serious rough patch, the two decide to try an open relationship, egging each other on in various sexual encounters that involve strangers. It’s a band-aid over a water leak, and soon that leak overflows and ruins everything in its sight.

Newness carries the same intimacy that permeates Doremus’ other films, but this twist on a traditional love story—the decision to skip over the googly eyes stuff and go straight to the comfortable relationship—proves to be a fruitful arena for his brand of filmmaking. The director is working from a script by frequent collaborator Ben York Jones, but Newness also boasts a different cinematographer (Sean Stiegmeier) and composer (Gwilym Gold) than Doremus’ previous efforts. Given that the impact of Doremus’ prior work has rested in part on the concert of the score and striking cinematography, I was curious to see what effect—if any—this change had on the film. As it turns out, the cinematography is fittingly claustrophobic and gorgeous at the same time, and the score wonderfully underlines the burgeoning relationship issues. That this still feels like a Drake Doremus film despite having different behind-the-scenes collaborators is a testament to his clarity of vision and execution as a filmmaker.

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Image via Sundance

And in terms of the cast, Nicholas Hoult has been doing terrific work for years, but he’s delightfully nuanced here. It’s one of Hoult’s best performances to date as he is able to telegraph Martin’s regret and trepidation without infusing the film with a mopey lead protagonist. It’s an increasingly complex performance as Martin is hindered by a variety of emotions—some straight-up conflicting—but Hoult hits the perfect note, culminating in an emotional final scene that I still can’t get out of my head.

Costa, too, is impressive as the flirtatious and infectiously charming Gabi, and indeed Doremus has a knack for eliciting raw, complicated performances from his actors. It does become a bit frustrating to watch Gabi fail her fight to be monogamous so frequently (Martin also suffers from similar issues, but his arc has more to do with his feelings for his ex-wife), but that’s no fault of the film’s. She’s a complicated character and the combination of Gabi and Martin makes for some compelling drama—even if you want to scream at both of them to get their shit together.

As with Equals and Breathe In, Newness also boasts some memorable supporting turns from the likes of Danny Huston and Matthew Gray Gubler. Doremus has such a talent for drawing intense intimacy from characters even if they have limited screentime, and while Equals offered him the opportunity to play on a sci-fi canvas, I’m still eager to see him bring this level of character focus to a much more traditionally plot-focused narrative. Newness is a step in that direction as it takes on relationships in a unique way, but just witnessing how much Doremus is able to get out of these performers in such small roles is a pure delight.

Newness marks a moving, involving, and yes, emotionally charged entry into Doremus’ filmography, and whether you’re a fan of his other films or not, I think you’ll find this one’s a pleasure to take in. Moreover, as Doremus narrows his universal focus on love to one very complicated relationship, he hits upon some truths that will no doubt hit home.

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