Friday, February 17, 2012

Overlooked Gems #22: Afterschool

Grade: 95 (A)

Antonio Campos’ 2008 film Afterschool is one of the most striking and assured directorial debuts of the past ten years (also in company: Rian Johnson’s Brick, Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me). It is also among the most disturbing films of recent memory. The film takes place at a prestigious prep school, but it is not a provocative statement on subversion and anti-authority sentiment in the same vein as Lindsay Anderson’s If. Rather, Campos’ film is a chilly look at alienation and mental instability among the modern American youth.
Robert (Ezra Miller of We Need to Talk About Kevin) is a bit of a messed up kid. A sophomore at a prestigious prep school, he is obsessed with Youtube clips and pseudo-violent pornography. He does not have many friends; his roommate Dave (Jeremy Allen White), a rich kid drug dealer, barely hides his dislike for him. He has virtually no experience with girls, and his relationship with Amy (Addison Timlin) veers back-and-forth between awkward inexperience and warped ideas of how sex works. Robert and Amy join the audio-visual club and are tasked with filming establishing shots for the school. One day, Robert films the hallway, and two popular senior twins rush out of a room, having OD’d on cocaine they got from Dave. Robert captures it all on camera. He leaves the camera and goes to help them, but both die. Robert, confused and lost in the moment, does not call for help. The uneasy atmosphere hangs over the school as the administration cracks down on the drug policy and the students and teachers try to deal with the enormous loss.
Campos’ influences are pretty clear: his penchant for long, unbroken static shots recall the films of Michael Haneke. Haneke also shows up in his combination of controlled camerawork and amateurish digital camerawork (from Robert’s camera, school security cams, cell phones). His chilly detachment from the situations, combined with his portrait of disaffection, is reminiscent of the works of Stanley Kubrick as well as Haneke. His quiet, patient direction, often focusing on the back of Miller’s head, is not unlike Gus Van Sant’s more recent work (Elephant, Paranoid Park). Yet Campos’ voice is distinct throughout, and for all of his influences, he’s never paying empty homage.
Robert’s short attention span and obsession with bite-sized realities extends to his social life: conversation is awkward, and the rest of the picture is often shown out-of-focus in a clever gambit to show his disaffection. He’s uninterested in phony conversations, speeches from the fake principal (Michael Stuhlbarg), and anything resembling a normal life. He feels alone and unloved, and the school practically encourages cliques. He’s sympathetic, but he’s also undeniably creepy. The film opens with an extended sequence of Robert watching pornography, and it’s clear this is the only way he can relate to women. While in class, his teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) lectures on Hamlet. Robert doesn’t pay attention to the class, but to his teacher…and then, only parts of her: her thighs, her ass, her breasts. Robert doesn’t see her as a person, but rather as an assemblage of parts; appropriately, DeWitt’s face and whole body are never shown in focus. We only see what Robert sees. It’s even more unsettling when Robert starts “dating” Amy. Neither are sexually experienced, but Amy has some idea of how to relate to people. After they kiss, Robert tries choking her as he saw in his pornography. He stops after Amy’s confused/scared laugh signals that women in real life don’t actually enjoy this, but it’s a profoundly disturbing scene all the same, and one that shows how a complete introvert’s views on sex could be distorted by a steady diet of pornography.
The scene is only the third or fourth most disturbing scene in Afterschool, which ought to communicate that the film is absolutely not for all tastes. Frightening as it is, Robert’s complete detachment from the real world truly grows more disturbing as the film goes on. As everyone else mourns, Robert’s reaction is strangely unreadable. Robert is tasked to create a memorial video for the two dead girls; the resulting film focuses not on the often staged professions of love and loss on video, but rather the environment of the school. It’s only by the end of the film that we learn how truly messed-up Robert is (without spoiling anything, I’ll say it has nothing to do with a school shooting as I’d expected it would). Say this for Campos: he manages to make an already chilling film even more disturbing in the final five minutes. Neat trick. I eagerly await (and dread) his next film.

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