Hello and welcome to Lowlight Reel, the one place for no-holds-barred review and analysis of the many terrible and intellectually insulting films that the entertainment industry insists on forcing upon us so that the directors and producers can add another wing to their house. A warning FYI, there will be swearing and a general lack of respect all-round, so if this concerns you, please throw your laptop or smartphone out of the nearest window, post-haste: no more pain where you’re going, little devices. Let’s kick the series off with the triumphantly appalling, After.
When I first learned that there was such a thing as Wattpad Productions and that they had entered into a business arrangement with a major streaming service, my immediate reaction was panic, followed by me shaking my fist at the heavens, wailing, “What hast thou brought upon this cursed land?” One has to wonder how this came about, but my bet is that this unholy union took place in a haunted castle somewhere in deepest darkest Bavaria (or Milwaukee, you never know), overseen by men wearing Emperor Palpatine-style cloaks, getting really into a bit of chanting. There’s something so unappealing about fanfiction being transformed into film, fanfiction being the safe harbour for everyone’s weirdest thoughts and desires outside of 4chan. It feels like this is only going to open an oddly specific and weird can of worms that the world doesn’t really need. Is this a portent for the burgeoning apocalypse? Let’s hope so. After all, we all saw what happened with 50 Shades of Grey.
Enter then the repackaged One Direction fanfiction-turned-bestselling-novel-turned-mainstream-film After, a drama-romance originally written by fan Anna Todd, before being turned into a remodelled screenplay by a triumvirate of Hollywood writers. There has been some contention since the film’s release regarding the depiction of the romance between the lead characters Hardin Scott and Tessa Young, with accusations of the glorification of toxic relationships in the face of a young, impressionable audience.
Hardin Scott, played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (yes, that really is his name), is Todd’s depiction of One Direction lead singer Harry Styles, swiftly renamed by publishing house Simon & Schuster for obvious legal reasons. Far from the media’s portrayal of Styles as a fairly inoffensive, well-dressed, debonair lad seemingly desperate to escape from his previous incarnation as Smiling Lipsync Fuckboy—Hardin Scott is, for lack of a better term, a bit of a bastard, but we’ll get into that later.
Following the critical success of Mortal Kombat 11, Johnny Cage has decided to wade into directing teenage romance films, which is a stark change in direction from doing the splits and punching people in the balls. Oh, wait, no, my mistake – it’s directed by someone called Jenny Gage, which makes this film already 50% less interesting than I first hoped.
In a nutshell, this is a classic teenage romance involving such tropes as the innocent, wholesome girl; the tattooed bad boy and the unfortunate current-but-soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who seemingly has no reason to exist within the film outside of showing how unattractive he is in comparison to our hunky protagonist.
We are introduced to Tessa, the golden girl of the whole production, played admirably against a dismal script by Josephine Langford. After a fairly rough upbringing with her overly protective mother—played inexplicably by Selma Blair, who’s really far too good an actress to be in this film—Tessa has delighted her family and her adoring boyfriend Noah by getting into an excellent university to study Economics. Tessa is the collective incarnation of every Mary Sue in every teenage romance ever—she’s blonde; she’s beautiful; she’s sensitive and intelligent; she’s something of a wallflower with no idea of how distractingly lovely she really is. Tessa’s boyfriend Noah, in comparison, is woefully mismatched with our heroine, seemingly more sentient cardigan than man.
Somehow After tries its best to make the blonde, beautiful heroine an outsider in a world where her newly-introduced roommate Steph is smoking weed in her college bedroom with her girlfriend and giving her a mid-afternoon tarot reading with the curtains closed, transforming the bedroom into some kind of liveable bong. If they were handing out points for sheer mum-rage-inducing edginess, surely this girl would be at the top of the leader-board. The roommate immediately announces herself to be Tessa’s spirit guide, which should be an automatic indicator to absolutely everyone that this girl is a dangerous idiot. Tessa, bless her heart, is such an innocent soul that she accepts this bizarre proclamation with delight, rather than throwing her books directly in her roommate’s face and storming off to kick up a fuss with the incompetent fuckwit who matched this girl with anyone besides a sturdy, frowning orderly armed to the teeth with sedatives and firm slaps.
So far, so typical. What’s more universal to teenagers everywhere than the feeling of being an outsider?
Enter then our outsider de rigueur, Hardin Scott, who Tessa encounters for the first time when she is soaking wet and clad only in a towel as if to emphasise her vulnerability to this new environment of Mean Girls on steroids and equally Mean Boys to top it all off. Hardin is introduced to us by way of loafing around Tessa’s room waiting for Steph and generally being a complete prick by acting like he owns the place.
“Don’t flatter yourself, I’m not looking,” snipes Hardin when Tessa quite reasonably asks him to GTFO so she can get dressed in privacy. I don’t know why anyone would put up with this; our romantic lead is immediately set up as a raging arsehole, which isn’t really a new concept, but Hardin is so unrepentantly dickish, so smug and arrogant, that besides his apparent ability to read and being the owner of all his own teeth, he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Oh, and Hardin is bookish. He likes books. Lots of books. Books you haven’t read. Not even modern books, but old-ass books from days of yore. Books you haven’t annotated to within an inch of their lives because you’re not as deep and mysterious and cool and profound as he is. So there.
However, this is somewhat shat upon by the fact that Hardin doesn’t seem to have much of an understanding of any of the books he’s actually read, and this is one of my major bugbears of the film. The fact that Hardin is so inclined towards reading is meant to be what makes him stand apart from other romantic heroes; it’s intended to make him look introspective, deep and romantic. Instead, it appears as if Hardin has only skimmed the Sparknotes for every book he’s claimed to have read, missed the point entirely and is yet still somehow an appalling snob about it.
Upon spotting Tessa with a copy of The Great Gatsby, he smugly offers the following line: “The Great Gatsby – that’s a good book. I hate to spoil it, but it was all a dream.”
“Actually it was all a lie,” retorts Tessa, giving me my first and probably last “yas queen” of the entire film. Because she’s right; it was all a lie. So shut up, Hardin, you sanctimonious answerer of questions that no one even asked in the first place.
And you just know that he’s not sorry that he tried to spoil anything—that’s Hardin Scott to a T, the World’s Greatest Spoiler of Things You’re Trying to Enjoy, the Lord High Ruiner of Fun. If he saw you enjoying an ice-cream, you just know he’d slap it out of your hand just to linger over the expression of sadness and confusion on your stupid face. He probably hangs around shopping centres at Christmas informing anyone aged 7 and under that Santa doesn’t exist while he laughs so hard that there’s a real danger his pants will never dry. He just has that look about him. He is piss and vinegar made man.
Ok, I get it, the whole point of this scene is to set us up for the inevitable lies and betrayal that we’re in for further down the line, and who doesn’t enjoy a bit of foreshadowing? But all it does for me is highlight that Hardin’s a patronising cretin who likes to pontificate about things he doesn’t really understand, such as love, literature and more or less everything else.
“Maybe don’t believe everything I say then,” Hardin helpfully informs us. Duly noted, you lying sack of shit.
Later on, he quotes Wuthering Heights at Tessa. There’s an obvious parallel that’s attempting to be drawn here between our dear hero and Heathcliff, but this is really not an example of a romantic hero that anyone needs in this day and age. Heathcliff may be in thrall to his obsessive love for Cathy, but he also violently abuses his wife and in one scene that no one ever remembers for some reason, hangs a dog specifically to upset her. Naturally After is somewhat devoid of wife-beating and dog-hanging and for that I’m thankful, because it’s certainly bad enough without all those things in the first place. The metaphors are especially confusing when you realise that Hardin’s character more closely parallels Heathcliff’s relationship with Isabella, who he marries for revenge just as Hardin leads Tessa along for revenge.
Yes, that’s right, that’s where our great romance is spawned from: Revenge. Timeless, right? Think of all those romances down the ages borne from revenge: there’s… uh… a bit in Don Juan, isn’t there? Iago and Desdemona in Othello, I guess; that ended well. A swift Google informs me that there are plenty of terrible romance novels out there where revenge is the main factor in starting a relationship, particularly amongst handsome six-foot billionaires. Is that good? No, it isn’t, and get out if you think otherwise.
Skipping over the majority of the film, which is largely beautifully shot montages showing Tessa and Hardin falling in love with minimal dialogue, inoffensive ambient pop playing in the background and the vaguest whisper of a plot, it emerges that the only reason Hardin showed interest in Tessa in the first place is because she refused to kiss him in a particularly lacklustre game of Truth or Dare. Imagine being such an insecure entitled gremlin that the very idea of a person you’ve just met and have been nothing but unpleasant to not wanting to kiss you sends you into a tailspin of fury. Didn’t Ted Bundy do something like that to an ex-girlfriend of his? It’s not a strong look, Hardin.
But wait! He realised that he genuinely did love her after all! He just conveniently forgot to tell her that his friends are a pack of sociopathic weirdos who think that leading a nice girl along over a period of months for petty revenge is top lolz. This is obviously revealed to Tessa in full view of the friendship group, so we get to take in her devastation and humiliation in brightly coloured HD, which is nice.
And herein lies the major problem with this film.
There are plenty of good teenage romance films out there. Some are even genuinely beautiful efforts that transcend the target audience. The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and even older films such as A Cinderella Story or Ten Things I Hate About You stand up to not only the test of time, but the test of taste. I shall call it the Taste Test. Yeah. You heard. There’s a reason I don’t work in marketing.
There’s something profoundly tasteless and ill-advised in the #MeToo era about marketing a romance film towards young impressionable girls that centres around a male lead who gaslights and mistreats his love interest and not only normalises but justifies his shitty behaviour. Let us not forget that Hardin dismisses Tessa with the condescension of a warlord to an ill-favoured concubine after a wildly erotic and emotional day at the lake, as well as sleeping with her shortly before she discovers his appalling betrayal, in public no less. While I understand the attraction of a redeemable bad boy, Hardin has no redeeming qualities besides physical beauty. His interest in books is nothing but a showcase for how intelligent and rarefied he’s supposed to be, even though he’s utterly average. His behaviour manifests in such a way to show him as a tormented soul, consumed by the trauma of his past, which also moonlights as a convenient excuse for everything he does. “I’m a mess,” he says. You’ve got that right, you tedious gonk.
Speaking of Hardin’s traumatic past (drunk father; abused mother at the hands of some men from the pub his father owed money to; his failed attempt at defending her against the attack—frankly it’s a weird story all-round), something the film never decides to address is Hardin’s apparent dismissal of it in order to play at being the quintessential dissolute rich boy.
“You should see the dump my mum lives in back in London,” laments Hardin, drunk on expensive whiskey, slumped on the floor next to his father’s pool, thus instantly demolishing any pity you might have had for the little scrote. Incredibly, nobody points out to him that no one’s forcing him to live with his rich father at a posh university. He could quite easily move back to London or get a job rather than live off his father’s dime, but no, that would require having some semblance of a backbone. He’s such a wet blanket it’s a wonder he doesn’t have to wring himself out before he walks out the front door in the morning.
After Tessa discovers her betrayal and rebuilds the various relationships she’s allowed to fall by the wayside during her misadventures with Hardin, an event occurs to tie up the narrative in such a way that I felt genuinely bewildered by it. I have a feeling it’s going to bother me for some time because it’s just so unnecessary and weird.
In her English Literature class, Tessa is pulled aside by the lecturer, who hands over Hardin’s essay on Pride and Prejudice, which is essentially an apologetic love letter. The first line of Hardin’s truly berserk manifesto is, “You asked me once who I loved most in the world. It’s you.” You can practically hear the college installing metal detectors on the doors of the building in the background.
Let’s just pause right here. How confusing must this have been for the lecturer? She must have sat there, ploughing through marking only to come across this lunacy when all she’d asked is for him to do the homework. You can picture the confused expression on the lecturer’s face as she thinks, “Does he mean me? Am I Hardin’s Elizabeth Bennett? Oh God, I hope I remembered to lock my car. What if he cuts my brakes? That’s it; I’m calling the police.”
That’s what SHOULD have happened.
Instead, Tessa receives Hardin’s piece of work, which is such a ridiculous breach of data confidentiality that I can only assume that the teacher was clearing out her desk mere moments afterwards, before rollerblading out the door screaming, “YOLO.” If anyone submitted a piece of academic work as an apology for their shitty behaviour to another student, they’d be expelled so fast that their very name would be anathema and no one would speak of them ever again, until they ended up on the news for taking a corner shop hostage or something similar. It would have made far more sense to have Hardin just tell Tessa these things himself, rather than submit them to his teacher in the strange hope that she’d hand the essay over to the unfortunate object of his affections, who I imagine will soon be requesting a restraining order. More than once in this film I equated Hardin to a sort of Tesco Value Ted Bundy, and this pretty much cements it for me.
Maybe this would be romantic for a 13-year-old girl imagining Harry Styles writing her an impassioned love letter, but to anyone who’s spent any amount of time around other human beings, the red flags here are large enough to begin the Monaco Grand Prix.
Of course, it’s heavily implied that Tessa and Hardin reunite after the incident with the essay, Hardin emerging from the woods like a serial killer to join Tessa at the lakeside as she stares off moodily into the distance. A sequel is in the works too, much to the delight of probably around seven people and much to the dismay of everyone else, so I’m sure we’ll find out what happens and how the young lovers cope with the emotional fallout of all this bollocks.
Personally, I’d be unsurprised if the sequel opens with Hardin in a police interview suite, while two burly moustachioed officers demand to know where the body is, but that’s just me (hint: it’s in the lake, with the rest). I’m old and jaded. The reality will probably just be a whole lotta montages set to Crystal Castles and Bon Iver, and won’t that be a treat?
So there you go, that’s After, which I sat through for nearly 2 hours so you don’t have to.