College Love Is a Dangerous Game in ‘After’

After” proposes that if you find college boring, what you need is a tattooed hunk to show you the path to real freedom. It’s a guilty pleasure culled from the first bestseller in a series by author Anna Todd, who originally spun this tale on the social storytelling platform Wattpad. Her muse is none other than singer Harry Styles, who is the basis for the story’s dark anti-romantic. It’s one of those novels designed to crystalize daydreams we wouldn’t share over dinner. Never does it dare get as risqué as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a pity, but it’s also not necessarily a bore either. There’s a difference between movies that are trashy without realizing it, and romps that bask in their naughtiness, “After” falls somewhere in the middle.

Tessa Young (Josephine Langford) has packed her things and is leaving for college. She’s not sure about what her passion in life is yet, but she figures a practical degree in economics will help. Her overprotective mom just hopes she stays focused and doesn’t dabble in drugs or sex. Her rather boring high school boyfriend Noah (Dylan Arnold) makes sure to keep tabs via text. But sure enough, Tessa’s roommates turn out to be bohemian wildlings like Steph Jones (Khadijha Red Thunder), who drags her along to a party where she first locks eyes with Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). It turns out Hardin is in Tessa’s literature class, dressed in Punk rock shirts and showing off his erudition by slamming any feminist labeling of “Pride and Prejudice.” He also has an annotated copy of “Wuthering Heights” in his room and quotes freely from Emily Brontë. At first the virginal Tessa is turned off by Hardin, but as they grow closer and he pushes her to be more liberated, the sexual tension gets heavy. For his part Hardin, who has serious daddy issues, denies believing in love, apparently having a hook-up arrangement with the bitchy Molly (Inanna Sarkis). But as their bond grows Tessa learns what it means to chart your own path, and Hardin learns that it’s not so bad to just open up.

Some credit should be given to “After” and the original novel for suggesting that tattooed bad boys might be sexier if they develop a taste for literature. It used to be in teen romances that the nice bookworm just couldn’t compete with the leather-wearing rebel, now in this social media age, even the black-clad hunk brushes up on 19th century classics. Todd’s novels and premise derive from an internet phenomenon in which fan fiction recasts pop culture celebrities in narrative fantasies. Hardin is a fictional version of Harry Styles, who has quite the fandom following online. Hardin embodies a fan’s fantasies of what Styles could be if he were a poetry-dropping campus wanderer. Curiously enough, the character of Hardin has no apparent musical talent. Connections to Styles aside, this film plays like a mellower version of a show like “Riverdale,” minus the cults and serial killers, where having a crush or kissing someone become the most urgent things in the world. Of course when you’re young it does feel that way.  Jenny Gage, making here her first major feature, recently spoke to Entertainment Voice about the general meaning of this story. “What drew me to this material was coming of age, first loves, sexual awakening. I was a young woman once, who went to college, met a boy and fell in love. But I think at the heart of it what’s universal is the coming of age aspect.” When asked if the boy in her case could also quote Emily Brontë, Gage simply smiled and said, “I don’t think so.”

Gage efficiently directs material that curiously shies away from getting too risqué. Aside from his skills with a book, there’s not much to Hardin except that his father Ken (Peter Gallagher) happens to be the college dean and is getting remarried. It’s extra complicated because Ken’s fiancé Karen (Jennifer Beals), happens to be the mother of Hardin’s best friend Landon (Shane Paul McGhie). This would have the makings of fiery, soapy material anywhere else, but here it simply serves as an explanation for why Hardin is so moody. When he reveals a dark secret from Ken’s past to Tessa, it’s so over the top you wonder why the actual drama doesn’t live up to it. Instead we get many scenes where Hardin sits with Tessa in a library after hours, invites her to jump into a lake with him (he even turns around while she undresses) and eventually initiates her into sex with perfect manners, even being mindful about using protection. The only real tension is generated from Molly, who apparently wants to keep Hardin as some kind of boy toy, although the plot is never clear about what they are, and poor bland Noah. Even without Hardin it’s no surprise a smart girl like Tessa would dump the loaf, he badgers her like a parent with text messages, keeping tabs and assuring her he’s just watching out for her well-being, with an emoji added.

Hardin is surely one of the more curious film temptations in a while. He’s not necessarily dangerous, just moody and well-read. Fiennes Tiffin recently shared with Entertainment Voice about playing the role. “As an actor we tend to focus on the differences between yourself and a character. So anything that’s similar I hope will naturally come through, and I won’t stop it from coming through. The vibe on set was great. We had a good week of solid rehearsals to focus on intimacy between me and Josephine. She’s a great actress who really set the bar for me.” For Tiffin the lake scene turned out to be the most challenging, “I had to wear flippers, I was cramping up, I was trying to look attractive and it’s hard to have a really smooth persona when you’re in flippers and cramping up.” Producer Aaron Levitz chimed in with the observation that, “We’re going to introduce people to a beautiful love story that’s pure romance, full of ups and downs, broken hearts, and I think people will be drawn to that pure voice that Anna Todd brings to her characters.”

“After” belongs to a specific genre meant to provide pure, melodramatic escapism. But long gone are the wicked romps from the 1990s like “Wild Things” or “Cruel Intentions,” now everyone sends threats via text and sex itself isn’t portrayed as edgy, but as a routine motion. The story’s main crescendo comes when jealous Molly shows Tessa a video of Hardin saying something cruel at a party, but it’s the kind of situation that just requires what Hardin actually does, apologize and explain himself. Because the cast is good and the movie is directed with a certain level of energy, we’re never necessarily bored, just wondering when it will stop behaving.

After” opens April 12 in theaters nationwide.