Is The Movie “After” Just Another Cliché?

Nikola Duka

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Before the premiere of After, the movie was a highly anticipated romance, another ideal for all college students to strive toward and high schoolers to fantasize about. The movie is based on The After Series with mixed reviews, as some raved about its merits and others called it a delusional attempt to elevate what is essentially a One Direction fanfic. After seeing the movie and dragging myself through its long-dead clichés–like its tired exploration of the duality of “before” and “after” which I really couldn’t not poke fun at here– I am inclined to agree with its critics. As a disclaimer prior to delving into my opinions on the movie, I have to clarify that this review is not intended to be a criticism of the books “The After Series” and should be taken as a multilateral perspective on the screenplay, production, directing, etc. of the movie only. With that out of the way, I can proceed into explaining all the ways After insults true literary aficionados and serves up cliché after cliché on a plastic platter.

For those who have yet to watch the movie, After follows the story of several college students, with a focus on the two characters Tessa and Hardin. Tessa is a model student, always being pushed by her sometimes overbearing mother who is already planning her wedding to high school senior Noah, her caring yet sometimes oppressively so boyfriend. Tessa befriends a boy in several of her classes named Landon whose mother marries the politician father of a boy named Hardin: Tessa’s future boyfriend. Hardin is very different from his step-brother; he’s the eternal bad boy who parties often yet curiously refuses to drink all the while majoring in English, Tessa’s true calling which she abandons in favor of a profession that can “pay the bills”. Her dream and love of literature is reignited when Hardin abandons his facade of “love is just a transaction” and the two begin a tentative relationship. Time passes and Tessa’s mother catches Hardin and Tessa together, to which she responds by cutting Tessa off after she refuses to break up with him. Hardin decides he has to support Tessa now and finds an apartment for both of them, during which the two become closer to one another. Hardin ultimately takes Tessa to his father’s wedding to Landon’s mother where Tessa learns that Hardin’s father was a drunkard who neglected his family. Soon after, Tessa reads several suspicious texts on Hardin’s phone from Molly, one of his party-loving (and jealous) friends, about something that he is hiding from her, later learning that Hardin was dared to make her fall in love with him and then “turn it off”. Tessa, naturally, becomes extremely upset and runs away from Hardin, avoiding him until their English teacher hands her Hardin’s essay, which she believes was written more for Tessa than her. In his proclamation, Hardin more or less confesses to being truly in love with her and the two reconcile at the secluded lakeside spot he first brought her to.

The plot itself may not seem inherently flawed besides being a bit overused in the world of romantic fiction, but its poor execution undermines any chance the movie had at being provocative or, at the very least, a satisfactory depiction of happy endings in realms besides those of Disney movies. Arguably the movie’s greatest faux paus that justifies its negative critical reception is its blatant discarding of characters with great untapped potential. Landon is supposed to be Tessa’s first friend at the school and the two share several classes together, but Landon is also Hardin’s soon to be stepbrother, a fact which causes considerable tension and triggers a violent dispute between them. Despite Landon’s frequent appearances, he adds nothing to the plot that the viewer doesn’t already know. He doesn’t prove to be a close friend, or at the very least a confidant, to Tessa as the beginning seemed to suggest, and his only important contribution was to call Tessa to talk to Hardin after the two fight. The even stranger thing is that their fight was an arguably random move considering they weren’t yet together and thus appeared to be the screenwriters saying they didn’t know how else to show Hardin’s softer side to Tessa. The same philosophy applies to Tessa’s roommate Steph, the party-obsessed, vaping, lesbian, depicted as a college stereotype who convinces her to abandon the good girl act and occasionally comforts Tessa when she’s upset about Hardin. Molly, too, who’s part of Hardin’s crew and likely has her own obsession with him, is made out to be vengeful and malicious, without any shred of sympathy for Tessa when she shows her the video of Hardin accepting the dare. Tessa’s mother, even, is forced into the mold of a helicopter mom without providing a reason for her rigidity, while Noah is the screenwriters’ lazy carbon copy of Tessa’s mother. An attempt is made at helping the viewer sympathize with Noah’s protectiveness but it falls flat because the movie makes it crystal clear from the very beginning that Tessa and Hardin are only meant for one another, and anyone else is an obstacle to their happy ending. Noah, like nearly all of the characters– is a robot designed expressly for one purpose, a plot device rather than a character, the product of the movie’s obtuse myopia around Hardin and Tessa. Although one might argue that the entire purpose is to illustrate the strength of the relationship between the two, the beauty and emotional impact of a movie on the audience originates from its likeness to reality in which everyone else in the world does not exist to serve two people.

At this point, you’d think that the dynamic between Tessa and Hardin would be complex, thoughtful, and immersive for the audience considering how much weight is attached to the two leads, but the movie delivers the opposite. It’s clear that Hardin had a complicated past, one that was somewhat brought up in the movie, but Tessa sweeps it under the rug and avoids confronting him about it, instead choosing to distract him by dancing or switching the topic. Her actions may seem like those of a sympathetic and understanding girlfriend, but they undermine the legitimacy of their relationship to the point where it appears more like a sexual outlet than an emotional one, thus losing any meaningfulness it might have held. The screenwriter’s comparison of their relationship to that of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice which is considered a timeless classic, didn’t contribute anything either, besides bothering critics who have seen this technique of literary allusions to foreshadow future events time and time again. It felt like the greater purpose of the literary allusion was lost; perhaps if the allusion wasn’t so obvious as the two leads in the movie mirroring those in the book, and instead there was a more elusive thread that ran through both works, it could’ve been forgiven, but the comparison was so glaring it was almost offensive that the movie thought viewers needed another hint about the course of events. If a literary reference was made, it wouldn’t have made sense for the leads to have no inclination towards writing; however, the actual writing of the leads, which we hear at the beginning with Tessa’s narration and at the end in Hardin’s essay to her, fell flat and I personally felt showed the two more as “wannabe” writers. Tessa’s usage of the dichotomy between “before” and “after” which are meant to represent before she met Hardin and after they became involved, lacked gravity to the viewer as it was very vague and somewhat meaningless at that point, yet it also failed to adopt stronger significance later on because, as mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be a strong bond of trust.

Despite many of its cinematic defects, the movie offers moments of light hearted comedy that help break up tension in the characters’ relationships, like the cop chasing Hardin and Tessa through the library after hours and Noah turning out to be her boyfriend instead of her brother as the film implied in the beginning. Many will enjoy the twists and turns that the movie provides in one’s search for love but I personally found the value of the journey depreciated by the ending. Although nothing about the movie thus far had been realistic, I’d expected a dose of truth at the end, yet received the opposite when Hardin and Tessa reunited, Tessa having entirely forgotten about the dare and let her trust and love for him trump her doubts, despite there being little evidence to suggest that their relationship was anything more than physical. The actors delivered a stellar performance but their talents were lost amidst a struggling plot that may be amusing for younger audiences but lacked the chops to leave more mature viewers with a lasting impression.