Synopsis – A young woman falls for a guy with a dark secret and the two embark on a rocky relationship. Based on the novel by Anna Todd.
My Take – I am sure I’m in the minority here, but as a book and cinema addict myself, I blame author E.L. James for ruining the genre of romance for most of us. Mainly as her erotic fan fiction centered around characters of Twilight, aka the Fifty Shades series, not only managed to become a successful trilogy of books, but also managed to spawn a full theatrical garbage of a trilogy that went on long after the novelty wore off, but also managed to create a sub-genre for itself, leading to the release of this film.
Much like James, six years ago, Anna Todd self-published her work of serialized fan fiction on Harry Styles, a singer and songwriter known mainly for being part of the boy band, One Direction, on Wattpad. As one would expect, it became popular almost instantaneously and reached over one billion reads, with comparisons even drawing to Fifty Shades of Grey, due to its steamy scenes and the of-course the glittery description of its male lead.
Which was quickly followed by Simon & Schuster signing Todd to publish her version as a story standalone story, a story which was quickly followed by three sequels and a prequel. Now, director Jenny Gage (All the Panic) and writer Susan McMartin (Mom) bring her story to the big screen in this theatrical adaptation.
While I didn’t realize that this film was based on fan fiction until after I saw it, I have no clue on how it stacks up against the book, having said that, the film is your typical young romance film. There are happy moments and bittersweet moments. The chemistry between the two main characters was great, and the pace will keep fans of the genre glued in for its whole run time.
But for others, this troubled bad boy meets earnest good girl story will feel like a lifeless slog of thinly written clichés, one that was usually just seen in Nicholas Sparks adaptions, but have since moved on to the other side. Even though the film clocks around just 105 minutes, it just gets frustrating to how watch how everything in the film is so predictable and sheeny.
The story follows Tessa Young (Josephine Langford), an angelically virginal bookworm who is having a hard time adjusting to her newfound freedom from her helicopter mom (Selma Blair) and her squeaky-clean still-in-high-school boyfriend Noah (Dylan Arnold) after joining college. However, things change when Steph (Khadijha Red Thunder), her roommate, introduces her to Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), an emotionally elusive bad boy.
Hardin has tattoos, wears all black and smirks instead of smiles. He’s the complete opposite of Tessa, and their chance of having a realistic and healthy relationship is as likely as it sounds. However, this all changes when Hardin quite persistently forces himself into her life, leading to a story that covers the ups and downs of their blissfully ignorant romantic fantasy.
This is a film falls into that desperately referential category of love story that name-checks Jane Austen and the Brontes as if that automatically places itself in the same lineage of swoon-worthy classics. Except that when straight-arrow freshman Tessa and British bad-boy Hardin duke it out in lit class over Pride and Prejudice, she calls it feminist and empowering, he scoffs that love is a transaction, their exchange sounds cut-and-pasted from book reports, which is surprising considering how the film has about four screenwriters attached to it.
While director Jenny Gage’s presentation is slick enough to keep the film from being unwatchable, she doesn’t lean hard enough into a tone that could distinguish this in any way. It’s not unapologetically romantic enough to overcome the moments that are super creepy and it’s not campy enough to be deliriously entertaining like the Fifty Shades films. It’s just far too serious and somber to veer into “so bad it’s good” territory, which is a shame because there’s a ton of potential camp value in just how extreme of a cliché Hardin is.
The central relationship in the film is particularly jarring in this way, as Hardin begins the film as flat–out condescending and rude to Tessa, who falls for him anyway. Hardin utilizes the nagging angle to gain Tessa’s affection, through arguing with her over books in class and talking down to her at every opportunity.
Although Tessa complains about it, the film treats Hardin’s behavior as charismatic and perpetuates the dangerous idea that women want to be treated poorly. The thing is much of Tessa and Hardin’s relationship is based on sex, Hardin’s playboy persona and sex appeal is his defining character trait and also why Tessa both resents him and is intrigued by him.
Over the course of the film, the only change Tessa goes through is discovering her sexuality with the help of Hardin, a detail that, by itself, is not a problem. Framing Tessa’s sexual discovery within a toxic relationship is. The story and characters overshadow what is, on a structural, performance and visual basis, a fine film. This dichotomy is representative of the film as a whole. By young-adult romance standards, this one is perfectly adequate.
However, young-adult romances are often hindered by unfortunate and sometimes damaging themes, and the genre’s high concentration of young female viewers deserve better. Oh, and then there’s the youthful steaminess on display. From this couple’s first smoldering glance, to their first clothed caress, to their first hit-the-sheets amour, After unabashedly fans the flames of young-and-reckless lust. The full fleshiness of their passionate embraces is kept just outside the camera’s eye, but their hyperventilating intensity is more than evident and overelaborate.
However, the third act takes the cake when it brings in a ridiculous twist revealing Hardin’s motivations. There are twists, and then there are twists of the knife. In the real world, the story of the film would be the set-up for a tale of righteous vengeance, or at least an all-in barn-burner about obsession and carnality. But this film leaves the question open for the audience to ponder, though it’s hard to say if that’s an intentional artistic choice or just sequel baiting, but it sure is potentially intriguing to wonder if Hardin and Tessa are in the early days of a romantic comedy or a romantic tragedy.
Performance wise, both Josephine Langford (sister of 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford) and Hero Finnes Tiffin have a couple compelling moments of raw physical chemistry but neither is able to burst through their characters’ played out tropes. Langford has an appealing vibe, but her doormat character is so poorly written it’d be tough for anyone to sell how blind she is. Fiennes Tiffin, on the other hand, mistakes looking medicated for mysteriousness. The other half of the time he acts as if he has a mark to hit, or an object to focus on off-camera.
In supporting roles, Selma Blair, Shane Paul McGhie, Khadijha Red Thunder, Dylan Arnold, Inanna Sarkis, Samuel Larsen, Swen Temmel, Pia Mia, Peter Gallagher and Jennifer Beals are wasted. On the whole, ‘After’ is yet another bland romantic film that is not only predictable but also too sheeny.
Directed – Jenny Gage
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 105 minutes