Directed by Jenny Gage
Starring: Josephine Langford, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Selma Blair, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Beals
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and some college partying
1 hr. 46 min.
There is a phenomenon known as fan fiction. Social storytelling platforms are full of tales pumped out by eager fans of books, movies, actors, actresses, adding their own spin, extending stories as they envision them. For author Anna Todd, it was devotion to the group One Direction, singer Harry Styles in particular, that served as inspiration for her postings on Wattpad. These musings led to her series of After novels, and this new movie adaptation.
Believe it or not, in our world of constant tweeting, Instagram likes and YouTube stars, literature exists. It may not, however, always possess the depth of the classic romance novels that inspire it. As much can be said about the film version of After.
Going into a movie specifically aimed at teens and young women is a reviewer’s challenge. Before this, I could only imagine how my then-teenaged brother once felt, taking my sister and I to see Bambi. He stayed in the lobby the whole time, smoking cigarettes. I was objective, though, looking for a film that wouldn’t assault my senses, knowing that more intergalactic sagas loom on the box office horizon. An uncomplicated, digestible, sweet, calming film, after a long week, would work. After’s plot filled that bill.
Tessa Young (Josephine Langford) heads off to college, a private campus in Atlanta. (If you’re looking for realism, you’ll wonder why no one has a southern accent.) You must suspend disbelief. This is about a girl leaving behind her mother and her boyfriend, Noah, who’s still in high school. It’s great to see Selma Blair as the mother, Carol. Not long ago, she was in these teen roles herself. Dylan Arnold, like most of the cast, young and largely unknown, plays Noah, a sort of Josh Groban without the voice.
Tessa has a roommate, Steph (Khadijha Red Thunder), who’s a wild child. It’s through her that our virginal naif meets the sullen, rebellious Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, nephew of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes). Hardin is the screen version of author Todd’s Harry Styles fixation; the apple of many a fevered teen eye. British and boorish to a semi-cultured extent, he pursues Tessa, sparking young love and, naturally, heartbreak. Hardin’s punkish attitude is a direct result of his relationship with his father (Peter Gallagher), who’s also Chancellor of the University. Oh . . . and the father’s about to marry his second wife, played by the ageless Jennifer Beals.
It’s unfair to describe the themes in any way other than this: A good girl comes of age falling for a flawed boy; life’s initial burst of pleasure and pain. As elementary as the gist of Romeo and Juliet, not as vapid and puerile as either version of Endless Love. Dopamine for girls, ipecac for guys. Ladies will admire Tessa for her fortitude, dudes will think she should jam a fork into Hardin’s forehead.
This is where films defy their own categorization. Despite my own craving for accuracy, like those southern accents that truly should be there, and a lack of character development, I found a gentleness to this film that was refreshing. No murderer was lurking around every corner, and abuse is only alluded to in the vaguest of ways.
Plato was to have stated, in ancient times, “Before we speak, let us define our terms.” After can be defined as a good night out for the girls, or a couple of youngsters on a date. Don’t look for teary speeches from director Jenny Gage at the Independent Spirit Awards. That’s not what this movie is for.