Directed by Antonio Campos
Written by Antonio Campos
Ezra Miller as Robert
Addison Timlin as Amy
Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Burke
My curiosity of seeing "Afterschool" at the festival stems from the fact that it was only one of two films from the United States in the regular lineup*. And to make it even more interesting was that it was the feature film debut of Antonio Campos, and to even deepen the interest Campos is only twenty five at the release of this. And while his age shows, there are strong shades of talent in this highly flawed debut film. "Afterschool" plays like a more talented Gus van Sant or Larry Clark film, using amateur young actors to create a stark realistic boarding school where tradgey strikes. But it deals with the anxiety, the awkward sexual tensions, and the violence in a much less creepy way than those two other film makers I mentioned. Sadly it does border into the pretentious and "film student" area at times, and the shades of talent sometimes fall into the shades of the unbearable. But there are several positive things about this film.
"Afterschool" introduces us to the boarding school in the same way that "Hunger" introduced us to the prison it took place in. Very slowly, showing us around with ease and adjusting us in the same way one would adjust themselves to a new surrounding. We are then introduced to Robert, a rather lonely young kid who complains to his mother that nobody likes him while in the background we see two teens making out rather heavily. Robert spends most of his time in the front of the computer screen, downloading baby faces, animal tricks, and school fights off YouTube, and also porn where the cameraman enjoys strangling his subjects for a moment to install some fear into them. He begins a rather tedious physical relationship with his friend Amy when they are assigned to work on a film project together. And than Robert, while filming the hallways for the exterior shots, sees a pair of twin sisters leave a closet covered in blood-one dead and the other quickly dying-from some kind of drug overdose. The school suddenly goes into a state of shock, and Robert feels numb from the fact that he was the first to see them in that state. As the two were the most popular and admired girls in the school, the video club decides to make a memorial video of the two which Robert is picked to edit. And we see how he reacts to the incident in comparison to the shook up nature of the rest of the school.
It is easy to draw comparions to films like "Elephant" in its study of high school life, or "Cache" in the method of letting the camera linger for several minutes on one image. Those are two films I'm not too crazy about, and "Afterschool" is somewhere right in the middle. Campos does a good job with the camera and with the sound, creating several tense moments in some quiet senerios. But at times he borders on the pretentious, and makes several obvious "film student" moves. Such as tilting the camera up during long scenes only showing us the top half of the characters heads, or showing us scenes through a video camera that is laying on a desk. I'm assuming that Campos is making a statement about the YouTube generations-how we watch so many videos that are taken by a camera that is often not placed properly-but it seemed often more like a gimmick than an actual statement. Some of the scenes seem to drag on forever, and there are moments where not much happened for long stretches of time in the narrative.
These pauses would have been more acceptable if the lead performance by Ezra Miller wasn't so wooden and boring. I was reminded of Gabe Nevins' performance in the awful "Paranoid Park," both of them playing similar roles-both anxious and confused teenagers. But even teenagers that are confused and going through their "awkward phases" aren't as wooden and lifeless as the ones these films try to portray. In their attempt to try and be natural, they are being as unnatural as can be. I was more struck by the performance of Addison Timlin, who played Amy balancing a nice amount of curiousity and innocence, especially in the angst of the tradgey that strikes. And there is some rather subtle comedy in the grown ups at the school-the 'trying to inspire' headmaster Mr. Burke, and the guidance counseler who is always trying to make insulting jokes to be on the same level as the kids. It is just ironic how several directors try to realistically portray high school life-"Elephant," "Wild Tigers I Have Known," etc-and they always end up showing it as this isolated place-sterotyping the cliques and groups to the convential. I think the best film I've seen about high school life in recent memory was the great Danish film "The Class," which I saw at the Brooklyn International Film Festival earlier this year and never saw again.
I am sounding like I did not like "Afterschool," but there were elements of the film that I really did admire, as the somewhat high rating will seem to suggest. The film is crisp and clear looking, and it is very well shot. When Campos wasn't seeming full of himself, he was crafting quite a good drama, but the whole thing seemed somewhat long and drawn out, especially considering the small amount of material that is provided. And his commentary on YouTube and those types of websites ends in a subtle and neat irony in the films final scenes that directors like Gus van Sant include, but bring about in an unbearable way-drilling it down your throat in an endless nature of eighty minutes. "Afterschool" ends rather bleakly, but it ends with the promise of a film maker that I want to get better-because there were moments that showed promise of whatever his next project will be, and there were certain scenes and images that just showed the promise of talent-raw and strong talent.
*By regular lineup I am excluding the two 'special events' films of "Changeling" and "The Wrestler," both from the United States by playing in special sections of the festival-the Centerpiece and the Closing Night film, respectively, both of which I refuse to pay the ridiculous forty dollars to see it at the festival.