Men and women can’t be friends, but they can be best friends with benefits. At least, that’s if they mock-up, sign and laminate a contract in agreement to keep their relationship simple and not catch feelings for one another. However, as we find in Jonah Feingold’s feature film debut Dating & New York, no matter how hard you try and avoid it, there is always love in the air in the city that never sleeps.

Centring around two quirky millennials, Dating & New York is a When Harry Met Sally meets Elf hybrid, illustrating what a love story looks like for the dating apps generation. It follows Milo (Jaboukie Young-White) and Wendy (Francesca Reale), who swipe right, share one night of great sex and then proceed to ghost each other for a few weeks. Yet, fed up with the endless relationship cycle of honeymoon and heartbreak, Wendy decides to take matters into her own hands and proposition Milo with a unique dating arrangement. If they both agree to the terms of their relationship contract, they can have all the perks of being boyfriend and girlfriend without the torment of becoming bitter exes. Despite warnings and advice from their respective best friends, Jesse (Catherine Cohen) and Hank (Brian Muller), the two dive into a classic, fairy tale romance, without any lovey-dovey public displays of affection—public kissing and hand-holding are strictly off-limits. Instead, they go out for dinner and ice cream; they take romantic strolls through the park and facetime and text each other almost constantly, all while resisting the urge to give in to the chemistry fizzling between them. However, the city, which has a notorious reputation for meddling in matters of the heart, has its own plans for the Gen Y sweethearts.

Dating & New York isn’t anything original; we’re all very familiar with the troublesome consequences of a friends with benefits arrangement. However, its self-aware stand-point manages to infuse something fresh into those tired romantic comedy tropes. Feingold isn’t afraid to poke fun at or knowingly riff on the genre: ‘I’m going to marry that girl one day’ Milo says whenever he sees a woman he finds attractive, pre-planning for an interesting story to tell on his wedding day. The film has a keen perspective on the modern-day relationship, and in entangling millennials in a Nora Ephron style situation, it manages to advance the genre into the future.

Feingold cleverly uses New York City to his advantage, leaning into the timelessness of the classics while creating a sense of magical realism as the city literally speaks to our characters. His love for the city is palpable throughout; he romanticises its every nook and cranny, presenting everything from cosy park benches and chic rooftop bars to mounds of stinky trash bags and rat-infested couches as the perfect backdrop for falling in love. It’s a cliche to say, of course, but he brings the place to life, morphing the busy city streets into a living and breathing character with its own romantic agenda. The film’s styling resembles Elf’s childhood pop-up book sensibilities, with illustration and enchanting voice-over narration lending the story its literary feel. Grant Fonda’s vibrant, fast-paced jazz score keeps the film on its toes and Maria Rusche’s sublime cinematography gifts the film its charming atmosphere.

The central ensemble cast of talented newcomers is the film’s greatest strength; they play off one another with ease, bringing in an elevated, improv style of banter. In her role as Wendy’s sassy best friend, Catherine Cohen’s is a real scene-stealer—her main character energy just cannot be contained. Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale show off refined acting chops, infusing definition and life into Feingold’s snappy script. However, although they do share adorable and endearing chemistry, their relationship often feels somewhat sexless. For such a switched-on narrative about modern dating and sex, the film, perhaps, would have benefited from a few more scenes of the hot and heavy variety. Yet, although the film is a touch vanilla, Feingold’s characterisation is a breath of fresh air in a movie of this kind. Milo’s relationship with his best friend Hank is especially inspiring to see: they’re completely unaffected by the toxic masculinity that usually surrounds dating and rejection. The pair are not afraid to open up to one another, go for facials or cosy up on a park bench together, and, consequentially, their relationship feels so much more reflective of a healthy male friendship, as opposed to the usual hypermasculine, internalised feelings fodder we usually see within this genre.

The appearance of Wendy’s yellow umbrella feels like a cheeky wink to the audience: Feingold isn’t attempting to make the next great New York love story here. Instead, Dating & New York is more of an ode to the genre, demonstrating that the kind of undeniable love existing in those beloved Manhattan centric movies and TV shows can still exist in the modern dating world, despite the distracting and exhausting existence of apps and iPhones.

Rating: ★★★★