Afterschool (2008)

Afterschool first published by Film4

Summary: The feature debut of Antonio Campos (Buy It Now) concerns a fatal incident at an élite prep school and its repercussions for one troubled pupil. 

Review: Nothing quite puts us in our place as viewers like an image of someone looking at images – and that is precisely where Afterschool opens. Alone in his dormroom in an affluent East Coast preparatory school, withdrawn adolescent Robert (Ezra Miller, who has never bettered this astonishing big-screen debut) is online, flicking between YouTube clips of cute babies, schoolgirls fighting, animal antics and the execution of Saddam Hussein, and finally settling on a sleazy sex-and-strangulation scenario on for his masturbatory kicks – before a knock on the door intrudes on his private moment. “Coming”, he says, truthfully if somewhat ambiguously.  

This bombarment of images, some innocent, some less so, sets the scene for the shifting tones and layered realities of Afterschool. Given the focus here on impenetrable teen disaffection, you might well be expecting the parent-baiting frankness of Larry Clark‘s Kids (1995) and the blank-eyed disorientation of Gus van Sant’s Elephant (2003) – whose majestic widescreen long takes Afterschool mimics – but the real surprise in the mix here is the video-based guilt and paranoia of Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005), lending writer/director Antonio Campos‘ unsettling feature, made when he was just 24, a reflexive depth that is entirely lacking from otherwise similar dramas of adolescence.

“I think I’m not a good person,” Robert tells his mother over the phone. He feels isolated, disliked, out of place – and his misfit status seems even to have infected Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography, with its strange angles and cut-off frames aping Robert’s reluctance to look others in the eye. We are not sure whether this is typical teen alienation, or something more serious – but clearly his mother’s long-distance advice (“let’s talk about something pleasant… we could always do medication”) is woefully inadequate, as is the poster visible in the background during this conversation, with its peppily platitudinous slogan “Respect yourself”. Likewise the headmaster Mr Burke (Michael Stuhlbarg) has only empty bromides to offer pupils and parents alike – while the overly chummy and inappropriately crude school counsellor Mr Virgil (Gary Wilmes) is swift to betray any confidence that comes his way. And Robert’s roommate Dave (Jeremy Allen White) is too busy peddling drugs to the school’s senior in-crowd (including the desirable Talbert twins) to have time for Robert’s problems.  

At last Robert finds an outlet simultaneously for his sexual curiosity, his voyeurism and his love of filmclips in the newly implemented afterschool audio-visual club, where he is partnered up with flirtatious junior Amy (Addison Timlin) to shoot establishing shots for a documentary on the school. When a shocking tragedy leaves two pupils dead, the school’s veneer of security gives way to moral panic. Robert, who happened to capture the horrific incident on camera, is enlisted by Mr Virgil to put together a commemorative video for the victims as part of the school’s, not to mention Robert’s, healing process. Robert’s strange and strangely honest video offers awkward, painful truths that the school’s adults would prefer not to see – and so Mr Burke rejects Robert’s film, and the reality of what has occurred remains buried in the boy’s troubled, confused conscience. 

Campos might so easily have made a more conventional teen pic, all wholesome sentiments and banal messages wrapped up in a neat package, not unlike the treacly ‘authorised’ memorial video that eventually replaces Robert’s own rougher effort – but by choosing to show the school community in the same distracted, fragmented manner in which Robert himself sees it, Campos refuses to edit out the unpleasant, uncomfortable realities that Mr Burke and the parents would prefer to sweep under the carpet. 

The result is a sophisticated twin-set of concepts. On the one hand, Afterschool is a jigsaw-like portrait of a possibly very disturbed young man struggling to find a private space for the expression of his innermost thoughts and feelings – and on the other, it is an equally uneasy vision of a world that responds to such problems with ignorance, hypocrisy or callous disinterest. Its final images unnervingly implicate us all, and are as hauntingly ambiguous as the film’s protagonist, as we are forced to ask ourselves who exactly is watching – and why. Or as one of the teachers (Rosemarie DeWitt) puts it, even as Robert is too busy ogling her breasts and legs to pay much attention to her lesson on Hamlet‘s conscience-pricking play-within-a-play (and Campos’ similar film-within-a-film): “Where are we going with this? Can anyone see?”    

Strap: Sex, lies and videotape in a privileged prep school, as Antonio Campos casts a cold, Caché-like eye over the adolescent state of postmodernity. 

© Anton Bitel