“After” goes through the motions of portraying the emotional whirlwind of first love but fails to make it feel real.
For all the marketing of “After,” with trailers featuring Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” and posters with the barely-clothed leads about to embrace, the film itself is ultimately quite tame. The arrival of “After” to the big screen is arguably more scandalous than the film itself.
Originating on fan fiction platform Wattpad in 2013 by Anna Todd under the username imaginator1D, “After” follows college freshman Theresa “Tessa” Young as she meets and falls in love with Harry Styles. After an initial surge of internet popularity, “After” was formally published in 2014. Harry Styles became Hardin Scott (presumably because neither Todd nor her editors had ever heard of literally any other stereotypically male name that begins with the letter “h”), and the series became a quick best-seller and optioned to become a film.
The plot is formulaic and predictable: obedient (and virginal) girl with overbearing mother arrives at college, gets introduced to an edgy crowd through her roommate, falls for the bad boy, thinks she “fixes” him, gets heartbroken, and makes up. A few changes were made: Tessa’s roommate Steph (Khadijha Red Thunder) has a girlfriend, Tristan (Pia Mia), Tessa has some nuance when she mistreats her boyfriend Noah (Dylan Arnold) while exploring her interest in Hardin (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin), and there is a villain, Molly (Inanna Sarkis), who is jealous of Hardin’s interest in Tessa. The “twist” is very ‘90s, and it’s only not immediately obvious because it’s essentially pulled out of thin air to break Tessa and Hardin up. The plot is basic but present enough that the film functions and is easy to follow, making for a viewing experience that’s neither thrilling nor terrible.
The secondary characters and plot points are forgettable, but with a film like this, that’s honestly the point. It’s really about Tessa, Hardin, and their relationship. The success of “After” lies in how invested the viewer gets. The result is middling. As Tessa, Langford does well in imbuing her character with the naivete and eagerness of a young woman beginning to figure out who she is. She sells Tessa’s nervousness when she first encounters Hardin, her defiance when she finally stands up to her mother, and her angry sadness when Hardin’s betrayal is revealed. Fiennes-Tiffin’s Hardin, though, isn’t in the same league. He’s supposed to be the breathtakingly hot bad boy of every Harry Styles fan’s self-insert fantasy (complete with versions of Styles’ tattoos that are uncannily altered), but instead he’s wooden and flat. Part of this is the writing, in which Hardin’s rough exterior falls away too quickly to be satisfying character development, but most of it is Fiennes-Tiffin’s monotone delivery of almost every line. When he’s meant to be in anguish at the thought of losing Tessa, he looks like he’s pained by a stomachache or a really bad cramp.
The film doesn’t take risks with its filmmaking, but its portrayal of love scenes is refreshing for the obvious female gaze. It’s evident that director Jenny Gage cares about how sex figures into a young woman’s coming-of-age. When Hardin first touches Tessa, he stands behind her while the camera follows his fingers along her stomach. It’s clear in framing her as the subject experiencing newfound pleasure; the film is neither depicting her sexual exploration for male viewers to ogle her nor for female viewers to ogle Hardin, but to show how sex fosters a deeper emotional connection with a partner and changes oneself. These slow-motion scenes between Tessa and Hardin are accompanied by big, sweeping orchestral strings to underscore that the sex is not there to just sell.
While “After” is not the swoon-worthy romance it tried to portray itself as, its attempt to depict the coming-of-age of a young woman in a way that includes sex but does not exclusively revolve around it is admirable and appreciated in a media landscape that still portrays young women as sex objects far too often. It can’t escape its origins, though, and comes across as a 2013 film that’s out of place in 2019.
Director: Jenny Gage
Starring: Josephine Langford, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Selma Blair, Khadijha Red Thunder
Release Date: April 12, 2019
Image courtesy of IMDb