Afterschool (2009, dir. Antonio Campos)
Starring Ezra Miller, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeremy Allen White, Addison Timlin
Stanley Kubrick, probably my favorite director of all-time, once said, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” The kind of films Kubrick made the most closely followed this philosophy, 2001 comes to mind immediately, were not films that met the aesthetic of pleasurable cinema. They were meant to provoke a reaction, positive or negative, and I suspect the negative would have interested Kubrick more. This is not to say director Antonio Campos is working at the same level of Kubrick, but is definitely more interested in cinematic language than plot or characters or dialogue. This sort of film is never going to appeal to a mass audience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly well made and through provoking.
Rob is a sophomore at Bryton, a fictional East Coast prep school where is a quiet, reclusive young man, preferring to spend his time watching viral videos and porn on his desktop computer. His interest in video leads him to joining the A/V Club after school pressures to participate in after-school activities. Amy, the girl he has a slight attraction to, is partnered with him to film B-roll exterior shots of the school for a collective club project. Amy can’t make it to one session, so Rob goes it alone and happens to witness twin seniors stumbling into frame, bleeding profusely from their noses and mouths. Rob silently walks over to where they collapsed and that is where the teachers and other students find him. It turns out the girls died of drugs that had been tainted with rat poison. Add to the mix that Rob’s roommate Dave is the known supplier in the dorms, and Rob must contemplate what he should do.
Don’t for a second think this is going to be some sort of taut thriller. This is a incredibly meditative and slow paced film, that isn’t about the death of the girls, rather it is about this young man and his personal psychosis. Rob is of a generation who filters reality through the pixelated grain of buffered video. We see portions of the film told through the lens of the digital video cameras handed out in class and through cell phone video. When Rob finally has a moment alone with Amy and they begin to get amorous, he mimics the actions he has seen on an incredibly misogynistic internet porn site. Amy is obviously shocked, but surprisingly not phased, as we can infer she has seen the same being from the same generation. Rob is an incredibly neutral protagonist, which has an odd effect on the viewer. While he does nothing to appear noble or heroic, I found myself rooting for him because of how I have been trained to view movies. Campos seems to be working to make us aware of this fact, that we have no reason to be on Rob’s side.
Michael Stuhlbarg, who made an incredible turn as the lead in the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man, plays Bryton’s headmaster and is a darkly phony figure. Afterschool definitely draws parallels to the archetypal teen stories like A Catcher in the Rye and Heathers, where the maudlin sentiment of the adults is seen through the stark, cold eyes of adolescents. Stuhlbarg expresses false sympathy for Rob’s condition after witnessing the deaths of the twins, and it is obvious every decision the dean makes is about saving face for the school, and making sure those parents who have influence are not offended. He reveals his true colors to Rob when the young man produces a video that does reflect the false regret and sympathy the dean wishes. The guise of a compassionate and sensitive educator melts away and he chastises Rob in an incredibly cruel manner.
Once again, I emphasize that this is not a film that will appeal to everyone. I suspect the audience that will “enjoy” the film will be quite small. It forces the audience to question their relationship between the tangible and the virtual, and beyond that how our view of the tangible can be distorted and effect the way we interact with the world around us. The ending of the film is incredibly chilling and unnerving and would do the great Kubrick proud, as it shrugs off the plausible and chooses to focus more on creating an honest tone. For those who are fans of Michael Haenke, I suspect parallels will be drawn between this and his contemporary classic, Cache.