Is there anything that Taylor Swift cannot do? (No, seriously. I’m wondering.)
Ever since Swift first released “All Too Well” on her album Red back in 2012, the song has been beloved by fans and critics alike. Taylor Swift fans commonly cite it as an all-time favorite, and the tune even clocked in at number 69 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in September 2021, an article which cites the song as Swift’s “songwriting peak” and “one of the greatest breakup songs of all time.”
Because of the special place that “All Too Well” inhabits in the hearts of so many, fans have waited years for the song to receive the official music video treatment and for Swift to finally release the mythical ten-minute original version that she penned all those years ago. Luckily for fans, with the release of Red (Taylor’s Version), Swift decided to deliver on both fronts, even announcing on November 5th that she had decided to up the ante by not just creating a music video, but a full-on short film which she had directed herself that would debut on November 12th at 7 PM. This 15 minute masterpiece—bursting at the seams with Easter eggs referencing Swift’s prior work which will be absolutely delightful to discover for long-time fans—is a work of art that anyone who has had their heart broken can relate to due to Swift’s spectacular ability to capture powerful emotions in her songwriting and directing choices.
First and foremost, before discussing the specifics of the short film, Swift’s casting could not have been more perfect. Not only are Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien both brilliant actors in their own right, but they also have very specific and very important purposes for the project as a whole.
In addition to Sink’s red hair being perfect because of the album’s title, Sink’s career as a prominent child actor on Broadway and on the Netflix hit Stranger Things shares a lot in common with Swift’s journey in the limelight. Because audiences have been able to watch her grow up on stage and on the screen, even though she is now 19 and considered a legal adult, many will still be quick to view her as a child. Her youth is therefore emphasized in the relationship with O’Brien’s older character; she must fight to be taken seriously in her first adult relationship and ends up being treated like a child by both the world at large and her partner. This is a very similar experience to the one that Swift had, breaking out into the music industry at only 16 and growing up with the whole world watching. The similarities between Sink and Swift’s stories of grappling with fame from a young age likely made Swift eager to cast her, with Swift even revealing on Late Night With Seth Meyers that “if Sadie had said no, I don’t think I would have made it.”
Dylan O’Brien’s casting choice is also perfect, because, to put it quite frankly, everyone adores him. Fans, especially younger women and girls, likely watched him on Teen Wolf and in The Maze Runner franchise and couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Because O’Brien is such a beloved public figure, we feel infinitely more sympathy for Sink’s character and understand why she could still be so in love with him even after all of the red (ha) flags that he exhibits over the course of the film. This clever casting choice effectively allows viewers to easily put themselves in the vulnerable position that Taylor was in during her relationship.
Now onto the film itself. All Too Well: The Short Film cleverly divides the tumultuous tale of this relationship into storybook chapters which mirror the novel that the female protagonist pens by the end of the film. To further this novel-style formatting, the film begins with an epigraph: a black screen with the Pablo Neruda quote, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long,” (a callback to the opening line of the original Red album foreword). Once this quote fades from the screen, we then hear the very first line of dialogue at the 13 second mark (a reference to Taylor Swift’s favorite number, of course).
“Are you for real?” says Her.
“What do you mean?” says Him.
“I don’t know, I just feel like maybe I made you up.”
Beginning with this conversation is brilliant because it is a scene that takes on a very innocent meaning on the first listen but a much more melancholic one after rewatching. The first time that we see the scene, her words represent her sweet surprise at just how in love she is with him. She is waiting for the ball to drop, because her love for him feels so wholesome and right to her. However, upon a second viewing, we know that the catch is coming. This time when she says she feels like she might have made him up, we know that she was indeed projecting onto him this vision of a better man than he actually was. Here, we see her naively blinded to his faults, which makes the rollercoaster of emotions to come that more tragic and relatable to a lot of people’s experiences with their first “adult” relationships.
Next, we come to our first chapter of their relationship, entitled “An Upstate Escape.” Here we get lots of cute, coupley moments, including an amusing shot of them listening to music through wired earbuds by a lake which is so typical 2011-2012 (when the song was originally released) that it couldn’t help but make me laugh. There is another shot of him giving her a piggyback ride through the woods, symbolizing her youth and the power imbalance in their relationship as he is guiding her through the new and confusing nature of adult relationships. Additionally, the fact that they are walking through the woods seems like a nod to the song “Out of the Woods” from Swift’s album 1989; even though they might appear to be a perfect happy couple, there are deeply-rooted issues in their relationship, even if they are choosing to ignore them for the time being.
However, by the time we reach “The First Crack in The Glass,” these issues in the relationship cannot be ignored any longer. We arrive at a dinner party scene, which is littered with clever directorial choices. As opposed to the naturally wild and unruly curly hair in the previous scenes, here her hair is straightened, showing that she is trying to appear more mature in order to impress the older dinner guests. The classy black turtleneck and bold red lipstick (a Taylor Swift signature) also signify this thirst to be taken seriously. Additionally, Her youth is emphasized through the red (ha) wine on the table. All of the older guests have already finished their glasses, but hers is still full, likely because she isn’t accustomed to alcohol yet since, at this point, she hasn’t even turned 21.
Then, we cut to a scene of Him angrily screaming on the phone while he demeaningly throws his keys on the ground for her to pick up. Even though he throws the keys to her implying, as the lyrics suggest, that he is gesturing for her to drive, she still sits in the passenger seat of the car, feeling unable to assert her power in the relationship.
However, she is certainly ready to try to assert her place in the next scene, where the music stops, and a wicked fight breaks out between the couple. This raw and vulnerable kitchen fight scene, which couldn’t help but remind me of the fight scene during the Fall chapter of La La Land, is where Sink and O’Brien’s acting chops really shine through. Within this captivating one-take scene, she confronts Him for “dropping her hand” during the dinner party, a phrasing which is strikingly similar to the line “I dropped your hand while dancing” from Swift’s song “Champagne Problems.” Although this moment of utter dismissal is something that greatly upsets Her, he proceeds to gaslight Her by calling her selfish for making the night all about herself. He even goes so far as to claim that he “[doesn’t] even remember the moment that [she is] talking about.” Although in the moment she concedes to his manipulation and lets him off the hook for completely brushing her off, even stating that she now feels “embarrassed” for voicing her insecurities about their relationship, the entire song serves as a way to reclaim the power she never felt that she could assert within the relationship while she was in it. The lyrics reveal that she is no longer willing to accept this idea that he could just so conveniently forget certain important parts of their relationship; she knows that he remembers it all too well.
And she remembers all too well right alongside Him as we transition to the “Are You Real?” chapter. Within this cleverly-titled chapter, the film inundates viewers with a stream of outwardly “real” and tender moments between the couple that upon further inspection subtly showcase the doomed nature of their tumultuous relationship.
This is perfectly encapsulated by the iconic refrigerator light dancing scene. Although I initially took slight issue with this scene because it does not take place “in the middle of the night” but rather right before sunset as evidenced by the golden hour amber glow streaming in from the window, this shift does allow for an interesting characterization of their relationship. He is seen dancing on the left side of the screen where the sterile blue light of the refrigerator is while she is twirling on the right in the warm light from the window. In this way, we can clearly see the artificiality of his “love” for Her in painful contrast with her genuine feelings for Him. The scene of the couple cozying up with a crossword in bed is also brilliantly bittersweet, because of its connection to the “Red” lyric “like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer,” a song that is also rumored to be about this same relationship.
This fortune-telling lyric is fulfilled with the couple’s breakup in the next chapter, “The Breaking Point.” In this chapter, we see Her sobbing in bed while wearing the brown turtleneck shirt that he wore when he first showed her around the house in the beginning of the film. She can also be seen wearing his plaid shirt from the forest scene in the next chapter “The Reeling.” In this way, the “All Too Well” lyric, “plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own,” takes on a much more melancholic meaning than before, showing that she still feels his claim over her in the nights when she is consumed by heartbreak. These clever wardrobe choices help connect the song’s lyrics with the deeper feelings she has for him.
There are other great moments in “The Breaking Point,” including a moment when she is typing her manuscript on the red typewriter and then crumples up a piece of paper and throws it to the ground, a clear call to the line “I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here.” Additionally, in the birthday party scene, we see her in a black dress and red lip, an outfit very similar to the dinner party scene, but her hair is loose rather than straightened, showing that his hold on her is waning. Additionally, the fact that everyone is drinking white wine in her hand rather than red, the color which describes their love, shows that the passion of the relationship is fading.
In “The Remembering,” we get one final look at some of the happier moments of the relationship, this time from His perspective. We see several shots of their intertwined hands, which serve as reminders of the good times before he dropped her hand, before finally settling on a scene of them playing cards and dancing by the fireplace. The ambience of the scene feels so cozy and intimate but at the same time suffocatingly insulated, reminding the viewer that he only felt as though he could truly love her in secret. Lastly, we see the couple’s tender recreation of the iconic “Spiderman kiss,” perhaps referencing a certain actor who played the twist villain in Spiderman: Far From Home (2019) despite initially appearing to be perfectly harmless…
Finally, the concluding “Thirteen Years Gone” section perfectly ties up the entire short film with a little red bow (pun fully intended). Here, we see that she (now played by Taylor herself), has written a novel about the relationship, which beautifully represents the way that Taylor has channeled her pain into art for others to enjoy and relate to through her music.
The cover of the book is blue with a tree that has lost all of its leaves, showing the fact that the autumnal relationship has fully fallen apart, and it is winter now (as also evidenced by the snow out the window). However, even though all of the leaves have died, the scarf still hangs onto the branch like a leaf, showing that the memories of their relationship will never fully fade from either of their minds. She hangs on to the relationship by immortalizing it through her writing, and he hangs on to the tree by keeping the scarf, as we see him peering in through the window with it still wrapped around his neck.
In conclusion, the All Too Well short film was phenomenal and well worth the nine-year wait. Watching Swift so effortlessly conquer yet another medium of storytelling was positively thrilling, and I sincerely hope it is an art form that she decides to explore more in the future, especially with the re-releases of Speak Now, Taylor Swift, Reputation, and 1989 still to come!