James Dean quit rolling in his grave out of boredom ages ago. Harry Styles is still alive, but why shouldn’t he start practicing now? “After,” one of the more plastic molds of troubled heartthrob storytelling in recent memory — based on Anna Todd’s popular Harry-inspired fanfic, in which the One Direction singer embodies a brooding college student — is the kind of dispiriting effort that thinks it’s scratching an itch for masochistic young girls, but primarily suggests that romance, desire and sexuality aren’t worth genuinely exploring.
“After,” which wasn’t screened in advance for critics, also falls into that desperately referential category of love story that name-checks 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 (Josephine Langford, “Wish Upon”) and British bad-boy Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) 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, because for the entire rest of the movie, they, and everyone else, talk like monosyllabic grade-schoolers. (Which somehow required four screenwriters, including Todd, to pull off.)
When fresh-faced Tessa arrives at college with squeaky-clean, still-in-high-school boyfriend Noah (Dylan Arnold, 2018’s “Halloween”) and controlling mom (Selma Blair) in tow, she finds a bustier-sporting lesbian dorm-mate (Khadijha Red Thunder) with nose studs and dyed hair ready to distract her from, ugh, studying. (Mom’s not happy.) In class she meets studious good guy Landon (Shane Paul McGhie, “What Men Want”), but at an alcohol-fueled party she’s drawn to English major Hardin, the accented rogue who reads hardback novels, grumbles disinterestedly, then toys with nearly kissing her. Who needs sweetie-pie Noah back home and his “night night” texts?
When Hardin takes Tessa to his secret place — a dock on a lake (he’s sensitive!) — she strips and puts on his Ramones T-shirt, and we sense her subjugation is nearly complete. But then there’s his glass-breaking rage at his single dad (Peter Gallagher) for remarrying, which requires Tessa to drop everything in order to comfort a sullen manipulator. That Hardin’s dad is the school chancellor, and his new bride (Jennifer Beals) is nice pal Landon’s mother, are character details that literally add no drama to the central romance, as if Todd stopped her imagination at “Wouldn’t it be neat if …?”
That lack of creativity is matched by Jenny Gage’s her-then-him-then-her direction and the rudimentary dialogue (the lyrics in the pop-song cues are richer), all of it dull enough to make one think the guiding MO was accommodating smartphone check-ins for the social media-addicted. Viewers certainly won’t be kept away from their devices by the performances. 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. (Maybe you’d give this performance, too, if your key casting reason was, “Resembles Harry Styles.”)
You can sense a little more attention given to the scenes of intimacy, if only because this is the stuff in fanfic that drives fans to the fic. But the PG-13 eroticism in “After” is mostly derived from close-ups of fingers gingerly breaching waistlines before cutting to its stars’ faces struggling to convey “Is this OK?” or “I think this is OK” or “You want it to be OK.”
Langford valiantly accepts that with most of the camera time trained on her doe-eyed mug, eventually some version of her happy face will transmit as ecstasy. But the story’s timing and the direction do her sexual-awakening trajectory no favors when the big loss-of-virginity moment, initiated by her, comes almost immediately after Hardin bitterly chokes out an I-hate-dad memory in which father’s drunkenness indirectly led to the rape of his mother, while he watched, helplessly. Um, here’s your nookie prize for opening up?
That “After” is already a troubling movie about falling for the troubled makes the ridiculous third-act reveal about Hardin’s motivations feel like an unneeded extra layer of psychological torture. There are twists, and then there are twists of the knife. In the real world, the story of “After” would be the set-up for a tale of righteous vengeance, or at least an all-in barn-burner about obsession and carnality. But it’s the heart-emoji OMG shell on an SOS romance that makes “After” not just bad, but worrisome.