When Tessa Young (Josephine Langford), the heroine of “After,” arrives for her freshman year at Washington State University, we can tell in a skipped heartbeat that next to her surroundings, she’s as sweet and dewy and wholesome a goody-two-shoes as the title character of Tom Wolfe’s college-and-Gomorrah novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” Tessa’s roommate, played by the model with attitude Khadijha Red Thunder, sports crimson ringlets and a nose ring and fishnets and Doc Martens, all the whole flaunting the car-wreck sensuality of a porn star. At a frat party, Tessa, in an outfit so modest that one girl snickers at it as if it were a sackcloth, gets drawn into a game of Truth or Dare, a surefire way to reveal that (duh!) she’s still a virgin.
And then there’s Hardin Scott, the moody British dreamboat played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, the 21-year-old nephew of Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, who has dagger eyebrows, expensive hair, and a smirky overripeness that suggests the second coming of Jonathan Rhys Meyers. “Hardin is complicated,” someone warns Tessa. And that’s not all he is. Hardin is deep. Hardin is trouble. Hardin thinks that Elizabeth Bennet, the demandingly ardent heroine of “Pride and Prejudice,” “needs to chill.”
Hardin woos Tessa to a remote lake where the two can have a private swim, and the first time he takes off his shirt we think, “Uh-oh, he’s got about as many tattoos as Max Cady.” The funny thing is, letting us glimpse those tattoos, one by one, over time is as close as the movie comes to character development. Look, he’s got a rose on the back of his hand. A flock of birds on his forearm. A King and Queen of Hearts on his middle and ring fingers. A mystical game board on his back. The closer you examine his skin, the more this college bad boy looks like a lost angel in a leather jacket.
For a while, though, the romance between Tessa and Hardin is so swoony and idealized that about all you can think is, What’s the catch? Will he turn out to be a seductive psycho like Mark Wahlberg in “Fear”? A kinky head case like Jamie Dornan in the “50 Shades of Grey” films? Is his knowledge of 19th-century romantic literature a pose of pretension or something more sinister?
None of the above. “After,” which is based on a new adult romance novel written by Anna Todd, with the Hardin character reportedly modeled on Harry Styles, is an innocuous teen pulp soap opera that flirts with “danger” but, in fact, keeps surprising you with how mild and safe and predictable it turns out to be. The movie is nothing more than the story of a beautiful college naïf who thinks she’s still going out with her hippie cuddblebug high-school boyfriend back home until she meets Hardin, the moussed Heathcliff of English class, with his saturnine undercurrents and are-you-experienced? stare. At one point, Tessa’s mom, played by Selma Blair, shows up and catches Tessa making out with this campus stud, and she says: Can’t you see? You’re throwing your college career away! I’m cutting you off! She’s speaking from experience (Tessa’s dad abandoned the two of them), but about all we can think is: In 2019, this is her reaction to the fact that her daughter, who is now an adult, has landed a drop-dead sexy boyfriend?
Hardin, as we learn, has some daddy issues. They come out at a pre-wedding reception for his father, played by Peter Gallagher, and the father’s new bride, played by Jennifer Beals. (The two barely have characters to play, but it’s always nice to see both of them.) And then the movie’s dark secret is revealed — except that it’s barely a secret at all, or at least not one that we haven’t seen a dozen times before. I’m no expert on the difference between young adult fiction and new adult fiction, but this adaptation of a piece of new adult fiction may leave all but the undemanding bull’s-eye of its target audience wishing that it were less new or young and, simply, more adult.