I can’t in good faith say that I’m a Swiftie. I’m a Swiftie in the sense that we all are Swifties — because you can’t avoid her. Her music has defined a generation, whether you like it or not. Even if I don’t buy tickets to Taylor’s shows, it’s still a Swift-dominated world, and I still reap the benefits of breakup songs. Everybody loves her femcel anthem, and I literally go crazy any time any of her singles play at a party. Part of the reason people joke about her being a crazy girlfriend with a self-described long list of ex-lovers is that she’s so lovable that we wish we could hate her, like our ex-boyfriend’s newest lover. She, like her Cool Girl contemporaries Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway (who supposedly has her own connection to “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)”), is just a beautiful, talented woman who seems a little too good to be true, and we tend to be distrustful of that. Maybe my lowered expectation of her is why I actually kind of love this short film.
If you haven’t heard yet, Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler”) dated for three months when she was 20 and he was 29. While nine years might not be as egregious as the infamous age gaps in Bradley Cooper and Leonardo Dicaprio’s relationships, there was a massive gap in experience. She had only just released her first album a few years before, and Gyllenhaal been in the public eye since he was a child. Looking back at those paparazzi shots of the two of them, you can’t help but see how different Swift looks.
The greatest directorial choice Swift made for “All Too Well: The Short Film” was in her casting. Dylan O’Brien (“Teen Wolf”) plays Him and Sadie Sink (“Stranger Things”) plays Her; the actors are the roughly same ages that Gyllenhaal and Swift were when they were together. I can’t say definitively if nine years is too much of an age difference if both parties are consenting adults, but when I first saw O’Brien and Sink lock lips, it was a bit jarring. I couldn’t help the queasy feeling in my stomach. I’m sure Swift knew what she was doing when she chose Sink; her role as a child actor is still fresh in the world’s mind, and we can’t help but feel that she’s still too young, that she’s still 13 in our minds. It makes me think that this is how Swift must have felt during this relationship: frozen in time, feeling like a little girl trying desperately to grow up.
The highlight of the short film is the acting. It has been way too long since O’Brien has had the chance to do dramatic acting on such a large stage. Swift said that much of the “electric” dialogue in one particular scene was improvised, giving a really natural feel to the atmosphere. O’Brien puts dirty dishes away and half-laughs as Sink explains her hurt feelings, calling her selfish only to backtrack by saying, “You’re acting selfish.” He repeats a half-hearted, weightless apology like in an early 2000s rom-com where men never know what they’re apologizing for but want to get out of the doghouse.
Worse still, O’Brien’s performance is still so romantic and charming. If it were me, I could never convince myself that he was anything else but a handsome guy who makes me laugh. I’m tempted to believe him a bit when he says he didn’t mean to brush off his girlfriend’s hand at dinner, that he really was just having fun with his friends and maybe she is making it about herself. But, just as magnetic as he is, this nameless man turns on a dime and slams a car door in his girlfriend’s face, throwing the keys at her. A Twitter user writes, “Jake Gyllenhaal having a ‘fuck the patriarchy’ keychain while dating women 10 years younger than him does track.” Men always seem to find a reason to make us hate them, don’t they?
Still, Swift’s short film is no masterpiece. The Pablo Neruda quote before the opening scene and the 4:3 ratio aren’t enough to convince me that this is the mumblecore indie film that Swift seems to want it to be — the protagonist’s turn to writing makes me think that she just watched “Before Sunset” when workshopping this. The blocking is very literal: When Swift sings about walking through a door, they walk through a door. When she sings about driving, they’re driving. Not that the film has to be completely abstract or new-wave, but there are times when the montages of laughing and kissing and fighting start to look like any other music video.
But, I don’t think we’re really watching “All Too Well: The Short Film” for its cinematic value. The most interesting thing about all of this is the new lyrics, much more accusatory about the age gap than the original version: “You said if we had been closer in age / Maybe it would have been fine” and “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age.” Maybe Swift wanted to try out writing and directing so that we could start seeing her more as a human — and not just her, but all the other celebrities whose sex lives we read about in tabloids. Eat the rich and all, but you can still get hurt even when you have half a billion dollars. More importantly, you can hurt people even if you seem nice on a late night show.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.