In 2013, a 25-year-old named Anna Todd self-published her work of serialized fan fiction on Wattpad. It blew up almost instantaneously and reached over one billion reads. After became a success largely for its steamy scenes, which drew comparisons to Fifty Shades of Grey—and because its male lead, Hardin Scott, was stylized after One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles. Within a year, Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, published all three books in Todd’s series. As my colleague Kelly Faircloth wrote in her review of the first novel, even though Scott is mostly dissimilar to Styles and “behaves at best like a prick, at worst like an abusive boyfriend in the making,” After generated enough interest to be optioned for a blockbuster release. The movie, starring British actor Hero Fiennes Tiffin (you may remember him as young Voldemort, Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and Josephine Langford as Tessa Young, the romantic protagonist who finds herself enamored with Scott’s seemingly oafish charm, came out April 12.
That afternoon, I sat in a New York City theater, surrounded by 12 teenage girls in various pairs. As assumed, After is remarkably horny and corny to the point of embarrassment. A generation of young women will definitely learn how to masturbate because of it.
Tessa Young is a recent high school graduate living in Georgia who fancies herself a writer, wears only pastel pinks and blues to remind the universe of her innocence, and says things like, “After him, there’s just... after.” She’s got a sweet yet overbearing mother, Carol Young (portrayed by the wonderful Selma Blair), perhaps the only truly nuanced character in the entire film, and a kind-hearted boyfriend named Noah (Nashville’s Dylan Arnold), who isn’t even given a last name. Tessa attends the University of Atlanta, where she meets Scott in her dorm room—he’s a literature-loving, broody Brit and never not seen in a black leather jacket or a Ramones T-shirt, and close friends with her too-cool-for-school roommate Steph Jones (portrayed by Khadijha Red Thunder); Tessa’s in a towel after making the rookie mistake of leaving her clothing on the floor of a shared dormitory bathroom. She asks him to leave so she can change, he tells her not to flatter herself. Before he exits, he stands close to Tessa, stares directly into her eyes and says things like, “Trying to imagine this one at a party, not seeing it,” and “The Great Gatsby? That’s a great book. Hate to spoil it for you, but it was all a dream,” to which she responds, “Actually, it was all a lie.” That’s called foreshadowing!
At this point in the non-plot, Scott is definitely just an asshole with an unfortunately attractive habit of making prolonged eye contact and an excruciatingly unattractive habit of quoting Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen at Tessa, but the chemistry is undeniable. Eventually, Tessa does go to her first college party (at the demand of Steph, who never becomes a fully developed character and it is unclear why she has any interest in including Tessa in any of her activities). There, she has her first drink—a swill of cheap vodka, perhaps the most realistic scene in all of After—and quickly exists a game of Truth or Dare after being challenged to make out with Hardin. What the viewer doesn’t see, and doesn’t learn until much later on in the film—long after Hardin and Tessa get together, she loses his virginity to him, and they move in together—is that Hardin was dared to make Tessa fall in love with him. He She’s All That-ed her!
Even with all of After’s schmaltz, the intimate scenes are pretty spicy for a film with a PG-13 rating. Whenever Hardin touches Tessa slowly, grazing the back of her neck with his pointer finger, or examining the waistband of her panties, or breathing heavy into her ear, the music stops. Ambient sounds take over and are quickly lowered in the mix to give way to labored panting just short of moaning. These scenes are particularly arousing without being too-weird to watch in public. There’s also the benefit of no dialogue, because just before they share their first kiss in a remote lake, Hardin says, “The silence... it’s beautiful.” And, “You don’t ever have to cover up, not for me.” And, “Have you never been touched before?” before removing his hands from her body and uttering, “We’ve got time.” You know, exactly how a 19-year-old boy speaks and not at all how an 18-year-old girl would like to be spoken to by a prospective suitor. It’s a fan fiction fantasy.
Their romance leads to Tessa cheating on Noah with Hardin (while Hardin is drunk and while Noah is asleep in her dorm room, no less), which is one of the few scenarios in this movie I could absolutely see the real Harry Styles getting mixed up in, at least, in the very early days of One Direction. Still, Hardin isn’t a stand in for Styles. They don’t look the same—I honestly think Tessa looks more like Harry than Hardin does. And Hardin doesn’t have the same playful, non-threatening-yet-devious boyish charm of Harry Styles. Hardin comes across as a noncommittal dick who Tessa is forced to “fix,” a fantasy that should remain in adolescence if it remains anywhere at all.
Hardin does possess many of Styles physical attributes: his English accent is low and deep. His eyes are bright, and his hair is dark. He has many of the same tattoos, just in slightly different locations: a rose, a pirate ship, etc. To my delight, they even gave Hardin what appears to be Styles’s third nipple on his lower abdomen (in After, it’s obscured by a tattoo, but a One Direction fan would spot it immediately.) Hardin also has a best friend named Zedd, who I assume is meant to be inspired by 1D’s Zayn Malik—and considering how sweet Noah is, perhaps he’s influenced by Niall Horan of the group.
The comparisons start and stop there. I imagine that is because there are legal limitations, but After is certainly enough to get your motor running if you’ve ever envisioned a world where you could totally fuck Harry Styles, and Harry has never known love before you. It’s hard to believe this movie exists. I muffled any uncontrollable giggles out of respect for the loyal Styles Stans around me, and for the realization that, yeah, I could totally see Harry Styles saying, “Can I show you something?” and then whisking some lucky bich off her feet. One Direction has come and gone, but their fandom knows no bounds.