by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Antonio Campos, U.S., IFC Films
Afterschool plays like a film studentâs demo reel of the various ways to signify âalienationââshallow depth of field, over-lit sterile interiors, ambient sounds of fluorescent light hums, expressionless actors, methodical tracking shots frequently overrunning or catching up to their human subjects. Even the best filmmakers should take care in how they choose to explore new implementations for these overused techniquesâGus Van Santâs recent Paranoid Park, for example, succeeds at most of the above nearly despite itselfâbut youâd think Afterschoolâs 24-year-old first-time feature director Antonio Campos had just discovered them for himself by the way he embarrassingly assaults the viewers with them in order to fashion his astonishingly shallow portrait of teenage disaffection.
As it consistently takes desperate pains to convey, Afterschool isnât your average Rebel Without a Cause disaffection. No, this is the age of YouTube, and with the filmâs opening montage of notable âTube highlightsâan adorable cat, the hanging of Saddam HusseinâCampos wishes to announce heâs going straight to the heart of the cultural zeitgeist and its content-be-damned, moral chaos of instant gratification. For a few minutes, this works fine: The next scene, in which prep school student Rob (Ezra Miller) raptly watches a clip from nastycumholes.com of a porn star being teased by an off-screen director and then threatened with strangulation, neatly captures the humor and horror of the womanâs fake come hither and then her genuine fright, as well as the fascination it invokes in a young male viewer.
But when Campos opens up to a widescreen survey of Robâs environs weâre pummeled with ostentatious, dilettantish art cinema gestures. Campos likely possesses familiarity with Van Sant (attractive youths abandoned to the edges of the frame or else isolated by shallow focus), Bruno Dumont (crotch and butt shots of Robâs attractive teacher), Michael Haneke (videotape rewound midway to surprisingly reveal the past tense of a seemingly present event), and even Frederick Wiseman (referenced in a characterâs last nameâbut only the filmâs setting has anything to do with Wisemanâs distanced yet compassionate documentaries). His attempts to replicate these directorâs strategies, however, are lamely inept. A character cut up or relegated just off-screen by an unconventional composition can work wonders when intermittently, expertly employed, but an entire film composed of such extremes without variety results in numbing overkill. To compound matters, Camposâs dialogue airmails meaning as if we couldnât catch the obvious visual drift. âNobody likes me here,â morbid and depressed Rob tells his mom over the phone. âLetâs talk about something pleasant,â she responds in disavowal. Parents just donât understand.
After further blunt establishment of Robâs poor little rich milieu (a showy pan ominously zooms in on his crew in the cafeteria as one boy silently suffers anotherâs taunts of âI fucked your sisterâ), Afterschoolâs plot gets set in motion by a Haneke-like shot taken by Rob and love interest Amy (Addison Timlin) as they work on their A/V class project. A long take of a vacant hallway turns into a document of death when a set of angelic blonde twins, both poisoned by some bad cocaine, stumble into view, but this crucial scene is utterly fraudulent. Itâs doubtful that a representative of Generation YouTube (as Mike DâAngelo so confidently terms it in his glowing review of the film) would have the patience to contemplate so little for such an endless duration, while the twinsâ demise is clumsily executed, all hesitating collapses and unconvincing screams. The twinsâ deaths amplify, at least for sensitive Rob, the barely concealed violence, drug abuse, cheating, hypocrisy, and disloyalty haunting the privileged East Coast school, and Campos links these problems to the distance from the ârealâ that a viewing-obsessed youth culture must traverse with ever more violent images and actionsâcell-phone camming hallway fights, anonymously posting footage of tragic events, imagining themselves as the unwitting subjects of constant surveillance. In this regard, Afterschoolâs failure isnât in its ideas, but in its realization. Quoth DâAngelo, who believes the film follows through on its premise, writing about a scene in which Rob mimics the nastycumholes clip:
âItâs only when [the porn starâs] unseen interrogator grabs her by the throat that she drops the facade and we get a brief glimpse of the actual scared-shitless girl beneath the manufactured pout and salacious come-ons. That is what Rob is responding to and attempting to replicate. He doesnât choke Amy during their (amazingly credible and virtually unseen) first kiss, when both seem to have forgotten the cameraâhe does it at a moment when Amy is clearly performing, after heâs seen her demeanor abruptly change. Itâs his painfully awkward attempt to make her more real. Thatâs what the entire film is about . . .â
Iâd buy this argument if not for the unavoidable evidence that Campos has put little effort into making his teenage characters at all credible. How are we supposed to take seriously the criticism of Robâs confused sense of mediated reality when Campos creates a high school community as far from awkward pubescence as a Calvin Klein commercial is from human sexuality? Uncompromisingly austere and bleak Bresson wasnât above having his protagonist from The Devil Probably admit to wanting to constantly fuck; prurient Van Sant regularly portrays his kids in posed states of angst, but at least they boast, tease, and rant in the ways only American adolescents can; even often self-satirically dour Haneke has Benny (Robâs Austrian predecessor, from Bennyâs Video) blast heavy metal music in his roomâthe kid has interests. In stark comparison, Afterschoolâs teens are so exaggeratedly zombified, so picturesquely tortured, so much the unintentionally romantic projection of self-conscious, stupefied angst (never has a student body appeared so preposterously laconic), that the filmâs exploration into shifting values of true and false comes across as highly dubious.
The ironic climax of Afterschool involves Robâs completed video tribute to the Twins, including footage of their parentsâ anguished inability to speak in front of the camera. âIt doesnât even have music!â the principal complains about the odd, unsettling video. Robâs arty, aggressive confrontation is supposed to be closer to the truth behind the girlsâ deaths than the mawkish tribute eventually screened at a memorial assembly (end title: âWe Must Never Forgetâ), which of course makes Camposâs own filmâso similar in style to Robâs that it commits to the oh-so-daring aesthetic principle of not even having musicâthe overriding determiner of truth.
But again, the claim to truthâsomething I doubt any of the above filmmakers would ever purport to have access toâbecomes nullified by Afterschoolâs vacuous, non-dimensional portrait of lost, beautiful youth. Directing his cast as if they were de facto victimized drones of the âNet, Campos overcompensates for circumventing the social complexities of high school by forcing every off kilter shot to perform heavy thematic lifting, peaking with the filmâs most obnoxious moment, when Campos refuses to reframe the shorter students standing at a podium to honor the twins after some taller professors have already spoken. Staring out over the bottom of the frame as if searching for any sign of directorial help, the students are caged and mocked. With two hours of this kind of condescension, Afterschool merely proves Campos incapable of making a statement about the very generation he opts out of facing head on. He clearly cares more for his camera.