Like a training-wheels version of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the romantic drama “After” also began as fan fiction. But instead of sexing up fictional characters, Anna Todd’s writing is wish fulfillment for young women picturing themselves with a real person: One Direction’s Harry Styles. For the film adaptation, Harry becomes “Hardin,” losing the pop star trappings but retaining the bad writing and barely sketched characters of its source material.
Tessa (Josephine Langford) arrives for her first year of college so naive that she doesn’t wear shower shoes in the dorm bathroom. Her mother (a welcome Selma Blair) worries that her daughter’s rebellious roommate, Steph (Khadijha Red Thunder), will distract from her studies, but it’s bad-boy Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, nephew of Ralph and Joseph Fiennes) who proves to be the real problem.
Tessa’s Gap-sweater-wearing boyfriend, Noah (Dylan Arnold), is no deterrent with his chaste pecks. Meanwhile, Hardin lectures about the transactional nature of love while wearing a Ramones T-shirt, making my eyes do a complete 360 as they roll back into my head.
As a fan of “Wuthering Heights” and “Pride and Prejudice,” Tessa can’t resist Hardin’s, umm, charms, which marry the worst aspects of Heathcliff and Mr. Darcy. She experiences a lust — and a love — she never had with Noah, but Hardin is hiding something beneath his bland, brooding exterior. Of course he is, because this movie is every coming-of-age romance movie rolled into one messy package.
Director Jenny Gage showed promise with her debut, the well-received documentary about Brooklyn teen girls “All This Panic.” Her intimate visual style, shot through with sunbeams and vivid color, remains intact here, but it can’t overcome Fiennes Tiffin’s dull, sullen performance and the leaden adaptation from Susan McMartin, Tamar Chestna, Gage and Tom Betterton.
The problems may lie in Todd’s novel, but regardless, characters act illogically, as though written by someone who napped through most of Intro to Psych and skipped English 101 altogether. Character motivations go either unwritten or left on the cutting room floor. Hardin remains a cypher, and what we do see points toward anger and violence issues. Tessa deserves better, but so does the audience — composed largely of teens and young women — who are expected to swoon over this supposed romantic hero.
Rated: PG-13, for sexual content and some college partying
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: In general release