The Best Films You’ve Never Seen #3: Afterschool
In this semi-regular feature, I discuss some of the best films which had low box office earnings, found little audience, or have otherwise been forgotten about over time.
Despite dominating the lives of teenagers for over a decade, very few films have focused on ‘the youtube generation’. Apart from a few teen comedies that show the funny side of public humiliation, or BBC-lite teen dramas that show the dark side of public humiliation, cinema has lacked genuine insight into how the world has changed, and is changing, in the face of anybody being able to access every known video available, from cute kittens and vlogs to execution footage and hardcore pornography.
Antonio Campos’ 2008 debut Afterschool attempts to confront the issue head on. The film is a troubling character study focusing on a lonely teenage boy at a boarding school, and the disturbing event he witnesses. Trying to find honesty in a world of pretence, Afterschool examines the psychological and sociological effects of having cameras constantly ready to invade your personal life.
In his feature film debut, Ezra Miller plays Robert, a teenager more interested in the internet than interacting with his peers at the prestigious prep school he attends. Opening with a disturbing montage juxtaposing funny animal videos with the execution of Saddam Hussein and troubling pornography, Afterschool depicts Robert as numb to the fake personalities and faux-inspirational teachers that surround him. When two popular girls die of a grisly drug overdose, Robert is the only witness and the only person who realises the grim reality of the situation. Tasked with creating a memorial video, Robert instead looks for truth and meaning beyond the empty platitudes and apologies the school offers.
For a first time director, Campos has incredible control over the look and tone of Afterschool. Twisting the detached cinematography and bleak outlook of Michael Haneke into something more abstract and arguably more disturbing, Campos uses deliberately jarring compositions to emphasise the isolation and detachment of his characters. When Robert meets the parents of the deceased girls, Campos frames Robert and the parents as far to the sides of the screen as he can, leaving us to look at almost nothing but empty space. The effect is uncomfortable but effective, allowing us little in the way of emotional investment. Though much of the film is shot in wide master shots or intense close-ups, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes occasionally uses extremely shallow focus to separate Robert from the rest of the world, turning him into the lone figure amongst a sea of abstract colour and movement. It’s an unusual technique, but one that serves to illustrate the level of disconnect between Robert and the rest of his peers.
Released three years before his breakout role in We Need To Talk About Kevin, it’s not difficult to see why Ezra Miller was cast as a disturbed, psychotic teenager. Spending much of the runtime quietly observing, an ambiguous frown on his face, Miller’s few moments of explosive rage and sadness are genuinely upsetting, as if his waking dream has quickly turned into a nightmare. Campos gets impressively credible performances from his young, unknown cast, with Robert’s roommates in particular feeling like exactly the sort of sex-and-video game obsessed wasters you can find in any dorm room up and down the United States. As the school principal attempting to keep up appearances in the wake of tragedy, Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific, toeing the line between publicly pleasant and privately cold in ways he’s since perfected on this year’s Fargo.
Focusing as it does on pornography, voyeurism, and the artificial nature of modern life, it’s no surprise that Afterschool was seen by few, and loved by even less. Disturbingly cold and calculated in its approach to young people and the careless acts they commit, Campos’ film is a realistic, troubling drama that has the look and design of a horror film. By the time Campos ends the film with one of the most terrifying final shots in recent memory, you might find modern life as unnerving as Afterschool does.
By Harry J. Ford
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