Directed by Antonio Campos
Afterschool is the feature-length debut from director Antonio Campos. He previously brought us the faux-documentary Buy It Now, an inquisitive peek into the world of social media commercialism, which featured a 16-year old protagonist selling her virginity on eBay to the highest bidder. Based on a true story, it was a short but fascinating look into the modern youth’s mindset.
Afterschool revisits many of the same themes but explores them from a slightly different angle. Whereas Buy It Now investigated the internet as a medium for the next generation to manipulate and interconnect, Afterschool instead scrutinizes the web’s effect as an organic hub of vented voyeurism and the damages and dangers it can cause as a means of social escape.
The film focuses on freshman Robert, who is an outcast of sorts at an upmarket boarding school. He spends his days delicately avoiding any true interaction with the world around him and instead prefers to live via user-generated clips online, which he finds comforting as they ‘seem real.’ Even the pornography that he enjoys turns unexpectedly violent in an attempt to evoke some genuine reaction from its female stars. His only real desire to take part with the world around him is in order to pursue potential love interest Amy, who seems intrigued by his shy mystique.
A tragedy soon befalls the school and Robert, who is entangled in the event, is asked alongside Amy to film a memorial video to commemorate the deaths of two students, something that he seems entirely comfortable doing as this allows him to exorcise his fractured viewpoint of the world via the safety of a lens.
Antonio’s film has been criticized by many for emulating Gus Van Sant’s work, particularly his piece Elephant. It’s also been accused of confusing ambiguity with depth. But to chastise Afterschool with such comments is to be deliriously short-sighted. Certainly Campos crafts a world and mood through his painstakingly beautiful yet natural looking shots and erratic editing that echoes Van Sant’s best work, but he does so with such conviction and personal voice so as to make the comparison irrelevant. The influence is there for certain, but the character and exploratory nature of the film is all his own. Afterschool may also seem to pervade an air of pretentious ambiguity, but that is far from the truth. It’s actually a very concise, tightly structured, and haunting piece that hints at much, yet answers nothing despite it’s obvious finger-pointing.
The editing is pitch-perfect and, when coupled with the brilliant sound design, it crafts an inescapable atmosphere – sudden abrupt silences, natural building dins. With no music in the film, the tangible background sounds of the school are used instead to remarkable and subtle effect. Arbitrary buzzes, hums and electrical whirs infiltrate almost every scene, building an odd air of unease and uncertainty for the events to follow.
Visually, it’s a beautiful film, but again in a very natural way. Every shot is perfectly balanced or artistically framed but exudes a sense of carelessness that is almost convincing as documentary. Indeed, the stellar acting re-affirms this; each performance, whether lead, support or merely filler is wholly believable. Rob in particular, played by first-timer Ezra Miller, is brilliantly nuanced and totally sympathetic.
Indeed, Afterschool is in general a rather remarkable gem. It deals with heavy and important themes and underlines the colossal ocean that lies between the youth of today and the grown-ups, as well as the dangers of the open accessibility of utilizing the web for personally tailored escapism and parenting. The only trait that seems to unite both young and old is insincerity, as psychiatrists dispel confidential information, headmasters muster emotional responses purely to maintain monetary gain, trusted friends manipulate and abuse, and seemingly sincere girls turn their emotions on a whim.
What makes Campos such a brilliant director is his refusal to play into any stereotypes. It would be so easy to let each character fulfil the cliché that they so endearingly nudge toward and it would in fact be far more satisfying for the viewer, particularly a viewer looking for a clear message over ambiguity. But the world is full of ambiguity and it is here that Afterschool shows it’s real depth. Because while Rob plays into the category of disturbed / introverted / innocent / geek reaching boiling point, he is still a teenage boy and Campos never shies from showing these inconsistencies. He is still fuelled by sexual awakening – the awkwardness, the temptation, the frustration, the bitterness, and these all play wonderfully off of the film’s main themes.
Afterschool is not a film that all will enjoy, but it is an important film. Not least because it shows just how much you can do with so little, crafting such a beautiful and fascinating film from such obviously modest conditions. But more over because it is successful in ways that Gus Van Sant has yet to be. Whereas Van Sant’s movies hint at the ambience of a tragic event, Campos has delved right in whilst maintaining a completely personal and introspective viewpoint. An admirable feat and one that is made all the more poignant by the film’s wonderful and thought provoking final moment.