Around our house there’s a running joke that foods labeled “hot” for American tastebuds are actually just gently spiced, while salsa labeled “mild” is as dull as dry toast. Whether Americans prefer barely seasoned food or makers prefer to err on the side of bland, who knows?
The new young adult romance After balances between American “hot” and salsa “mild.” It’s not quite dullsville, but it assiduously avoids real drama. Anytime the story line sets up the potential for explosive conflict — a wedding cake begging to be toppled, a mother walking in on her daughter astride a half-naked young man — the characters turn away. What should be the movie’s “hot” moments are barely spiced.
Admittedly, I am not the target audience for a YA movie aimed at teen girls (it’s barely PG-13 steamy). No doubt the woman-led creative team — director Jenny Gage, screenwriter Susan McMartin and novelist Anna Todd — know the minds of their imagined viewers better than I. But since I watched the movie in a theater empty save for two young women who politely refrained from any apparent reaction, I would suggest that they’re not communicating their story’s passion as well as they might have.
The plot is simple: Only child Tessa (Josephine Langford) heads to college with a wardrobe of sister-wife dresses, leaving behind her inexplicably 20-something high school senior boyfriend-for-life (Dylan Arnold). Her sizzling hot lesbian roomie (Khadijha Red Thunder) introduces her to broody British hunk Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). Hardin seduces Tessa by quoting Wuthering Heights and showing her his favorite lake, a good excuse to bare (again) his lean torso and two dozen benign tattoos.
Tessa suddenly acquires a Ramones T-shirt, denim jacket and shorter skirts. Hardin finds them a love nest. They practice safe sex (thank you). People try to tear them apart. Et cetera.
There’s a subplot involving Hardin’s divorced dad, who has somehow gone from alcoholic mess to chancellor of a university in the past 10 years and is now poised to remarry. Other than padding out the running time, this digression seems to serve chiefly as an excuse for welcome cameos by Peter Gallagher and Jennifer Beals, both veterans of much steamier youth melodramas from decades past. Ditto Selma Blair, as Tessa’s overprotective mom.
The movie is mistitled — it should be titled During, since it’s not really interested in the “after.” The action is confined to a single semester that’s entirely free of temporal references, like holidays or midterms or weather, save for the inevitable rainstorm reserved for the lovers’ big fight. Which is neither big nor much of a fight.
Like the equally aimless Fifty Shades of Grey, After began as fan fiction. In this case, the inspiration was Harry Styles, the tattooed pin-up (and now actor) from the boy band One Direction, here renamed “Hardin,” perhaps because “Dick” and “Peter” seemed too on the nose. In other naming trivia, actor Tiffin uses his middle name, Fiennes, in part to remind us he’s the nephew of Ralph and Joseph.
Whether Tiffin and Langford can parlay this milquetoast effort into an actual movie career is anyone’s guess. They’re both model perfect and credibly cast and don’t embarrass themselves. So, maybe. At least that would justify this instantly forgotten movie’s unhelpful title.
Grade: D. Rated PG-13. Now playing at the AMC River Hills, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark.
(Photo: Aviron Pictures)