By Simon Miraudo
September 24, 2012
Antonio Campos' Afterschool plays like the creepy younger brother of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret. Both concern troubled teens at an elite school near New York City; both involve a gory tragedy being witnessed firsthand by its protagonist; both tragedies mirror the falling of the Twin Towers in September of 2001; both feature Rosemarie DeWitt in a small role; and both arrive on our shores years after they were originally produced. But Afterschool isn't quite carried out with the finesse of Margaret, nor does it strive for - or achieve - the same operatic grandeur. In fact, the stylistic influences of Gus Van Sant and Michael Haneke - as well as the hammering home of the 9/11 parallels - are so explicit, I'm almost embarrassed to note them.
That's not to say Afterschool isn't a fine debut feature. Campos - also a producer of Martha Marcy May Marlene - instils a palpable sense of dread throughout proceedings, and he draws from star Ezra Miller a far more nuanced performance than the one he would later deliver in We Need to Talk About Kevin (though he's not-so-nuanced there for a reason). It's suitably raw and thoroughly chilling, which is enough to override any elements that might seem torn from better films. Note to all Van Sant acolytes: the blurring of adults in these detached-teen-centric flicks is not helping us forget that Paranoid Park exists and is far superior.
Miller's Robert is a strange, quiet underclassman at a boarding school presided over by the chirpy Mr. Burke (Michael Stuhlbarg). He's compelled by shorts of piano-playing cats and uncensored brutality recorded by regular people and posted online. Oh, and sadistic pornography. He joins the AV club to experiment with their cameras, and by chance manages to record a slice of unfiltered reality: two popular twin girls stumbling out of the toilets from a drug overdose, and collapsing in a bloody heap. The school is temporarily united in mourning, and Mr. Burke calmly informs everyone that they are not alone in their pain. It's not long, however, before some controversial initiatives are introduced; security guards, random drug tests, limited visitation days. The guidance counsellor reveals to Robert that he had previously alerted the school to the girls' drug habit, and they had failed to act due to a long-standing relationship with their wealthy parents. A memorial video concludes with the phrase 'Never Forget.' If the mere image of two twins collapsing - one earlier than the other - had not inspired recollections of September 11, Campos will make sure it's at the forefront of your mind by the rolling of the credits.
More interesting than the 9/11 allusions is the way in which Robert deals with - and is chastised for - his grieving. When we finally see his tribute tape, it's an unsettling amalgam of "real" moments of the girls' distraught mother and father, the principal fumbling his lines, and students clumsily trying to convey why they care so deeply about peers they barely knew dying. At the end, Mr. Burke offers his critique: "I'm no editor, but I can safely say that was the worst thing I've ever seen." Though it's true the tribute seems more like that video from The Ring than any Oscar 'In Memoriam' slideshow, there's something oddly appropriate about it. Robert is unafraid to say untimely deaths are ugly, and anger-inspiring, and terrifying. But at a school where the line for anti-depressants is longer than at the cafeteria, this is just not on, and he's practically threatened into taking meds on account of his fascination with realness.
Afterschool follows a few other threads to startling effect, particularly Robert's fixation on sexual violence and his obsession with the camera. On occasion we get to step behind his lens and see the world through his detached, unblinking eye, and the sense that all is not right with this young man - before and after the twins' death - becomes apparent. He crushes on fellow film-lover Amy (Addison Timlin), only to temporarily subject her to the kind of aggressive intimidation he's witnessed in particularly distasteful pornos. Though the ultimate message gets muddled within Campos' machinations to make the World Trade Center comparisons clear, the movie's final, anxiety-activating shot (recalling Haneke's Hidden) sets us straight. The camera is always waiting to capture us at our worst.
Afterschool is now available on DVD in Australia.