After Review: This Fanfiction-Inspired Love Story is Actually Quite Good
After is an intimate look at the ups and downs of first love that takes some nonsensical narrative turns, but is nevertheless a captivating romance.
Like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Mortal Instruments before it, After started off as fanfiction. Specifically, it was fanfiction about One Direction band member Harry Styles, and it amassed such a massive readership that its author, Anna Todd, received a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster. The story of a young couple falling in love inspired an incredibly devoted fan base among preteen and teen girls, but was also criticized for the abusive nature of the central relationship. For the movie adaptation, After was directed by Jenny Gage (All This Panic) from a script by Susan McMartin (Mom). After is an intimate look at the ups and downs of first love that takes some nonsensical narrative turns, but is nevertheless a captivating romance.
In After, Tessa Young (Josephine Langford) starts her freshman year of college as the perfect daughter, and the perfect dedicated student. However, Tessa's world changes when she meets the brooding Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin). The core of After is the relationship between Tessa and Hardin, which the movie builds and develops in a compelling manner. First love can be all-consuming, especially when coupled with teenage rebellion, which is the case for Tessa and Hardin in After. Tessa has lived her life as the perfect daughter/student/girlfriend, and she meets Hardin when she's on her own for the first time, discovering who she really is. In that way, After also operates as a coming-of-age tale as Tessa discovers her own desires and what she wants from a romantic relationship, and her life. The movie balances the coming-of-age story and the romance well enough, though it does skew much more toward the romantic storyline.
The romance between Tessa and Hardin is explored in an incredibly intimate way through Gage's tendency to use a great deal of closeups on Langford and Fiennes-Tiffin, allowing the viewer to experience the characters' range of emotions and moments of intimacy along with them. After is, of course, a PG-13 movie, but it still manages to depict its female protagonist exploring her sexuality for the first time in her life in a way that feels honest - even if it's set within a hyperreal romance story world. Much of that comes down to Gage's deft directing, but the relationship between Tessa and Hardin is also carried by Langford and Fiennes-Tiffin, who work incredibly well together. Further, the relationship is developed well through McMartin's script. There are moments when the script really shines, like one particular back and forth between Tessa and Hardin about Pride and Prejudice, but there are other times when the story seems restricted by its need to stick to the source material.
While Tessa and Hardin are the focus of After, everyone else in their orbit is underdeveloped as a result. The script particularly suffers when attempting to justify key story points because After doesn't properly develop the relationship between Tessa and her mother. The film twists in certain directions to get Tessa and Hardin to where they need to be for the big third act conflict, but never truly justifies how they got to that point. Meanwhile, though After makes the effort to add diversity to the story by genderswapping the romantic interest of Tessa's roommate, Steph (Khadijha Red Thunder), so that Tristan (Pia Mia) is a female character, the film is so focused on its main couple that it spends very little time developing these supporting characters. Similarly, the other teens in Hardin's group are largely one-note stock characters that play their roles in moving the plot forward, and do nothing else in the movie. After also tragically wastes the talents of Selma Blair as Tessa's mother, as well as Peter Gallagher and Jennifer Beals, who play Hardin's father and stepmother, respectively.
Still, though After may struggle under the weight of adapting a book as lengthy as its source material, Gage's movie does an excellent job in condensing the story to a palatable hour and 46 minutes. Further, and perhaps most important to those that recognized the abusive nature of Hardin's behaviors in Todd's original book, Gage and McMartin's After evolves the relationship between Tessa and Hardin to be much less abusive in nature. Hardin still makes mistakes, but Tessa - and, by proxy, the movie - holds him accountable for his actions. After also gives Tessa a great deal more agency and independence in a way that rectifies the inherently problematic power dynamic between the two in the book. Gage and McMartin adapt After into a truthful and relatively more healthy story of first love, while not changing too much about the original story so as not to alienate fans of the book.
As a result, After is an entertaining watch for fans of Todd's original novel, or even those who were interested in the story but concerned about the implications of the relationship between Tessa and Hardin in the book. It's an honest look at first love and a young woman's sexual awakening, but one that sticks as close to the source material as possible without adapting too much of its problematic themes. The film isn't necessarily a must-watch in theaters, but is definitely great counterprogramming to other releases at the moment, offering an engrossing romance tale. After is a truly worthwhile romance for the modern era, and it's one that will be beloved by girls and young women - which is, ultimately, who the movie is for anyway.
After is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 106 minutes long and rated PG-13 for sexual content and some college partying.
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