Directed by Antonio Campos
Afterschool, an exhaustingly self-serious and derivative treatise on Today's Youth, tackles two tired themes and is thus doubly tiresome. About, on the one hand, the trials of adolescence and contemporary studenthood and, on the other, the zeitgeist-y issue of cameras vis-à-vis the Internets, the film fails to engage either in a meaningful or original way. Instead, it creates something palely imitative: Haneke-esque in its finger-wagging and Van Santian in its aesthetic pretension, the watered-down movie hews close to the John Hughes playbook of high school movie stereotypes—which no amount of Bela Tarr pacing, no cloak of arthouse legitimacy, can hide. This shit is a sham.
Ezra Miller stars as Robert, a pubescent boarding schooler with a thing for waffle fries and YouTube clips. While shooting innocuous B-roll for an AV Club project, he accidentally captures the overdosing death throes of two popular twin girls from a wealthy family. Familiar with, and perhaps desensitized to, such grisly violence from his viral videos—Campos dubiously asserts that footage of Saddam's execution and piano-playing cats carry the same cachet for today's teens—he is emotionally mystified when confronted with such gory mayhem in reality.
Campos must have borrowed Lars von Trier's Automavision for the shoot; the computer program, used by the Danish director for The Boss of it All, controls the camera, instructing it to point and shoot at random; Campos' set-ups are similarly arbitrary. Faces are cut off at the top and bottom for seemingly no reason. The tops of heads fill the entire frame. Afterschool looks self-consciously Artful, dangerously teetering over into the Artsy, but often with no content-driven purpose. Campos, in his mid-20s, just likes this aesthetic better than the rapid cuts and centered framing that dominates the visual styles of his peers.
Well, bully for him. But would that he had applied himself to such stabs at distinction while writing the script. The characters are an endless parade of familiar types: the children of privilege are Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince horny! And they're all hopped up on pills! And illegal drugs! And the parents are aloof! ("Tell me you're all right so I don't have to worry," Robert's mother tells him—even though he's not all right!) And the principal (the marvelous stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg, now moving seriously into movies with this and A Serious Man) is more concerned with fundraising and decorum than education and safety! Ooo, the, the, the...hypocrisy! "Is there a sympathetic teacher who talks to the kids off the record, out of the classroom," a colleage asked me as I described the movie to him, "a la Noah Wyle in Donnie Darko and Olivia Williams in An Education?" And, by God, there is. Campos merely goes through the motions of what seems Real, obscuring his clichés in the arthouse trappings of unbroken takes, an absence of music, and super-widescreen compositions. Clichés they are, nonetheless.
Campos piles on Big Ideas, too, in another effort to obscure his basic substantial vacuity, but they are just as stale as the high school formulaicism; for starters, there's a 9/11 subtext: the victims were twins (like The Towers) and their deaths trigger an oppressive crackdown that then begets student-on-student violence-from hallway wrestling matches to cafeteria fisticuffs; the twins' mawkish memorial service includes a banner that reads, "Never Forget," as the principal announces "we will be vigilant against the dangers out there". It all adds up to half-considered Bush-era broadsides, sooo almost a decade ago.
The film's commentary on the video-clip culture isn't much fresher, either. Kids are alienated from reality, Campos suggests: they whip out cameras when they see violence, rather than intervene. And, get this-Robert copies the misogyny he sees on NastyCumHoles.com in the sexual experiences of his own life. Campos thinks pornography corrupts minds not yet fully formed! The movie's cameras go on to take on the role of judgmental godheads, always watching, whether while we're studying or masturbating. The end of privacy in the Web 2.0 age means we can no longer keep our moral infractions secret. (New video of Robert tending to the dying girls shows up on a website, this time from a suggestively divine bird's eye view.) Or, is Campos trying to say that, as voyeurs, we the audience become culpable for the violence and its videography? As Robert's principal tells him, the death of those girls was "all our faults".
Campos doesn't make convincing arguments for any of these positions; he seems only to be half-introducing mashed-together ideas he has picked up elsewhere. And he might deserve credit here for some clever sort of mimesis: since this is a movie about a kid who understands the world only in video clips, perhaps the movie itself then is the meta-product of a filmmaker who only understands the world via other movies? But that would be giving Campos more estimation, intellectually, than he has proven himself to deserve with this film.
Opens October 2