For those keeping track at home, we’re now three installments deep into a franchise that started as One Direction fan fiction before morphing into a sort of Fifty Shades Of Grey for teenagers. There’s no BDSM angle to the After films, however, probably because the real masochism is for those still watching along. To its credit, the latest entry, After We Fell, at least has a solid commitment to depicting safe sex in a positive light, which is a nice thing to model for the legions of young people who have made this college-set romantic melodrama such a financial success. But even teens deserve better than the warmed-over good girl/bad boy tropes the series continuously fails to enliven with each new entry. Though After We Fell aims for the scintillating eroticism of a lithe young couple risking getting caught with some semi-public hot tub sex, the whole experience is more akin to taking a lukewarm bath in a swimsuit.
Centered on the tortured love story of Type-A college freshman Tessa Young (Josephine Langford) and brooding British bad boy Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), the After franchise is essentially a bland CW show stretched out over several movies. Yet even grading on that curve, After We Fell is very much a filler episode. After the second film became an unexpected pandemic-era box office smash, the series greenlit two more sequels to be filmed back-to-back in Bulgaria during the pandemic. To put it kindly, After We Fell definitely has the feeling of a film that was shot in Bulgaria during the middle of a global pandemic. Half of the cast either failed to return or were casually recast, not that you’d really notice when all the supporting players are so painfully forgettable to begin with.
There’s no plot to speak of, either. After We Fell clumsily picks up and then subsequently ignores a dad-centric cliffhanger from the last movie, only to finish with a literal “to be continued” ending of its own. In between those juicier bookends, the film runs down the clock with its immature, incommunicative central pairing. While the first film had an “Am I a fucking bet?” angle and the second introduced both a love triangle and a fake dating storyline, After We Fell doesn’t even bother coming up with a basic hook. The conflict ostensibly lies in Tessa’s decision to move to Seattle for her new publishing job and the question of whether Hardin will move there to be with her. Hilariously, this latest dramatic development joins the events of the first two films on the list of things that have happened within the span of Tessa’s freshman year of college. No 19-year-old has ever had a bigger rollercoaster of a fall and spring semester.
As with Fifty Shades or Twilight, there’s definitely potential for some “so bad it’s good” fun in the After series—especially in how much Hardin is a mess of poorly developed bad-boy clichés. (Fiennes Tiffin joins The Kissing Booth’s Jacob Elordi in the “punching people for no reason is hot” style of character construction.) The problem is that most of After We Fell is too boring to even lend itself to mockery. The movie comes close to the right lack of self-awareness in a scene where Hardin watches in increasing sexual fervor as Tessa does some basic white girl hip-swaying at an office party. But you’ve got to sit through an awful lot of stilted scene work to get there.
Sorely missed is Dylan Sprouse, who brought some fun verve as Hardin’s nerdy romantic rival in the second film. You mourn his absence but celebrate his good career choice to not return to this franchise. Even as young adult softcore, After We Fell is limp. Though the series switched over to an R rating starting with its previous installment, the repetitive sex scenes set to moody pop songs are lacking in anything resembling genuine heat, even as new series director Castille Landon tries to spice things up by adding hot tubs, phone sex, and gym equipment into the mix. In the end, this is a film only Afternators could love. But even they won’t miss much if they skip it.