In September 2015, a now-infamous Vanity Fair article went viral after it drew a defensive flurry of sarcastic tweets from Tinder. In the piece, titled “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’” Nancy Jo Sales quotes dozens of millennial daters and considers their testimonials, musing, “In a perfect world, we’d all have sex with whomever we want, and nobody would mind, or be judged, or get dumped; but what about jealousy, and sexism, not to mention the still-flickering chance that somebody might fall in love?”
About 30 minutes into Newness, the new feature from Like Crazy team Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones, a minor character reads a liberally adapted quote from Sales, presenting a theory about the major inflection points of human history. He says there are three: the transition from hunting and gathering to sedentary farming, the invention of modern plumbing, and the age of dating apps.
“It is literally destroying our emotional spectrum,” he reads off a crumpled sheet of notebook paper. “There’s only ‘like’ or shame, pleasure or pain, all extremes, no grey… which is funny, because it was our greyness that made us human all along.” It’s a doozy of a speech, only lightly rebuffed as “cheesy” by its recipient. And if you’re alive and dating in the age of dating apps, it’s not particularly pleasant to listen to. There’s a little bit of winking hostility in Jones’ script, seen again when he choreographs a key scene around two millennials eating avocado toast together. It’s not mean, exactly. But he’s asking “What exactly is wrong with dating apps, and whose fault is it?” and he starts to answer the latter half of that question by pointing fingers at the most obvious guilty party: the beautiful people who use them. Whether they can get out of the movie without destroying each other and accepting that guilt becomes the primary source of tension.
Ever since the Newness trailer came out last month, I’ve been referring to it as the “very serious Tinder movie,” and waiting for it impatiently. It looked ridiculous, and at the same time it felt urgent. Watching the trailer again — in which swipes on a dating app are interspersed with beautiful people screaming — it looked absurd. I could not wait, and it did not let me down. Newness is both very serious and very much a Tinder movie, although the dating app on-screen is a fake one called Winx. A third of the way in, Newness explicitly argues that dating apps have ruined romance, or made long-term love impossible. The central relationship, between Martin (Nicholas Hoult) and Gabi (Laia Costa), is tested because — a few months after moving in together — they find they still crave “that newness,” and decide to redownload their dating apps so they can experiment with an open relationship.
You can probably already guess every key point on the arc of Newness, which follows Gabi and Martin as they experiment with their relationship — happily, then not-so-happily, then angrily. Newness would be boring if not for the fact that the parameters of an open relationship aren’t the only thing threatening to blow this relationship up. Gabi is hyper-sensitive and Martin can be mean. Martin also had a brief, previous marriage that ended in the wake of a shared emotional trauma. When he finds out on Facebook that his ex-wife is now the happy mother of a six-month-old baby boy, he fishtails into a night of guiltily watching old home videos and composing a verbose email to her about his lingering regrets.
“She’s in the past,” he tries to assure Gabi as she rages around the room, throwing herself onto various pieces of furniture and screaming, “No, she’s a ghost! She’s here!” Boiled down, Newness isn’t really about dating apps: Martin and Gabi love each other, or so they say, and their love story is one-of-a-kind, or so they believe. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s at least one of the big problems in… every relationship in human history. This is part of what makes Newness feel so similar to the filmmakers’ 2011 feature Like Crazy, about two people who love each other, and think their love is one-of-a-kind, and end up on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, separated by a violated visa. That, and the leads in both films are objectively beautiful, charming, perfectly lit, articulate, and poreless in a way that makes their love story seem more than a little detached from the broader human experience it’s meant to represent.
As for that broader experience, the debate about what dating apps have or haven’t changed about love has already been raging for years, and Newness doesn’t add much to it. Sales’ 2015 article quoted young people who said things like “You can’t be stuck in one lane… There’s always something better,” and “It’s like ordering Seamless. But you’re ordering a person.” Just a year later, people from the same generation told The Atlantic’s Julie Beck about their “dating app fatigue,” saying, “It really is sifting through a lot of crap,” and “Maybe everyone who’s on Tinder now are like the last people at the party trying to go home with someone.”
Search “Tinder ruined dating,” and you’ll find no shortage of personal essays, Reddit threads, and expansive, reported features arguing as much. At the same time, Tinder rebutted Sales by claiming it had already facilitated 8 billion “matches” in late 2015. In early 2016, a report from the Pew research center found that 15 percent of American adults were ready to admit they were using dating apps. The same report showed that a majority of Americans considered dating apps a good way to meet someone.
Newness is really not a clear thesis about the impact of dating apps on romance and love. The few dating-app conversations on-screen are bland enough to read like first-draft placeholders. In one, Gabi says, “Points for not sending a dick pic!” The first act of the film shows Gabi and Martin finding match after beautiful match, sleeping with them seemingly whenever, and then gossiping cheerfully about it. There’s none of the real-life drudgery of using an app like “Winx” — swiping for hours, un-matching boring people, half-trying to make a plan but realizing your schedules are incompatible, you don’t care enough, and you’re tired. For ordinary people, dating apps aren’t really a sphere where the major problem is an overabundance of choice.
In an interview for Movie Mezzanine, Doremus said that he personally missed the boat on dating apps, having been in a long-term relationship since before they really took off. He explained his goal with the movie: “It’s of the moment, but the same issues we deal with of intimacy, what we share and don’t share, how we relate to each other — they’re kind of timeless, in a sense.” Sure, at a certain point, it becomes uninteresting whose fault it is that the infrastructure of dating has moved to the smartphone. What’s more interesting is how people are responding. But if you take Doremus’ and Jones’ word for it, these relationships are no more or less affected by the paralysis of choice brought on by an app than they are by the dozens of other hurdles life can throw in front of a new relationship. As someone who didn’t miss the boat, I don’t know that I believe it, though it’s certainly a comforting suggestion.
Newness is a modern love story, where selfies and LTE play a role, but its sweet, wildly optimistic final minutes are something else entirely. Without spoiling them, they’re a timeless resolution to a timeless formula. They make Newness into an enjoyable, well-acted, beautifully written, but ultimately very small movie, divorced completely from the question of whether dating apps have had any specific impact on our ability to fall in or out of love.
Newness is available now to rent on iTunes, and will later stream exclusively on Netflix.