Film Review: After Everything

A fresh twist on an oft-told tale makes for a strong filmmaking debut.
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Writers and directors Hannah Marks and Joey Power would like you to know their feature debut After Everything is “NOT A CANCER MOVIE.” Yes, its protagonist does have cancer. And, yes, the film does concern itself with what happens during and after his cancer treatment. But it’s the latter half of his story, the emphasis on what happens after cancer, they would like you to focus on. “What happens when the one big thing that brings two people together is suddenly no longer there?” they want to know.

What happens is predictable, but that isn’t the point. The point is that Marks and Power have taken what could have been a melodramatic or terribly precious hipster story—that of a 23-year-old boy living in Bushwick (a terrific Jeremy Allen White) who falls in love with a 23-year-old girl living in Bushwick (Maika Monroe) as he is battling a rare form of cancer—and they have made an engaging film, one that smartly eschews a typical three-act structure for a two-fer. It’s not that theirs isn’t a Cancer Movie; it’s just that After Everything is a fresh twist on the tale.

Elliott works in a sandwich shop with his best friend and roommate, living a carefree, substance-addled and sexually bacchanalian lifestyle. It’s hedonistic fun as usual when one night Elliott to his dismay realizes having sex is painful. He visits the doctor, who orders X-rays and then a biopsy. Meanwhile, he enjoys a Meet Cute with a pretty but standoffish girl in a subway station. Her texts sustain and distract him as the tests are being run. On their first date, the still pretty but no longer standoffish Mia finds herself in the surprising, uncomfortable position of being the first person to learn Elliott has cancer.

Things between them become very serious very quickly. Mia is there when Elliott tells his parents, she is there through chemo, she is there through chemo’s awful side effects, she is there for a carpe diem night of MDMA, and she is there in the days before his risky surgery to accept Elliott’s proposal of marriage.

All of the above and then some comprise Part I of the movie: With Cancer. The Bushwick milieu, the costumes, the locations, Mia’s roommates who do nothing but get high and watch murder documentaries, the way Mia and Elliott speak, all ring true to the contemporary moment. But it’s Elliott, the character and the actor who plays him, who is the true-to-the-moment-and-situation heart of it all. In Part II of the movie, Without Cancer (admittedly a bit of a spoiler, but since the Cancer Movie’s typical climax is here only the story’s halfway point, nothing wildly detrimental to a new viewer’s experience of the film is being disclosed), Elliott deals with the consequences of post-illness and post-wedding life. He is changed, he is more mature, but the harrowing experiences he has already undergone do not, unfortunately, preclude him from going through in an entirely believable manner what every twenty-something regardless of medical history must: figuring out who he is.

The same goes for Mia. She seems at last to be coming into her own just as Elliott is struggling the most anxiously with his identity. In fact, you could just as well call After Everything a fresh twist on a coming-of-age film as deem it a Cancer Movie.

Monroe is an interesting talent. She has an extraordinarily distinct face and even more a distinctly laconic voice that might not, at first listen, seem to lend itself to different characters. But even though she never loses her distinctiveness, she fits just as easily inside a family dysfunctional film (The Tribes of Palos Verdes) and a misbegotten nostalgic melodrama (Hot Summer Nights) as she does here, in an understated indie drama. She’s carving out a nice indie career and like her standout co-star White, whose film About Everything rightly is, is eminently watchable.

Actually, the true star of the movie is its structure. By cleaving the action in two, both the development of Elliott and Mia’s relationship and what happens after its peak are given their just due. It’s certainly something to make someone who is sure she already knows where the story is going think: Who cares? I’m with these characters, anyway.