Judge Gordon Sullivan is still in detention.
"Afterschool marks the emergence of a major new talent in film."
Back in the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney (amongst others) made their literary bones by providing unflinching portraits of the emotional emptiness at the heart of the people who society says should be the happiest, the rich and the beautiful. Although pointing out how kids are being screwed up is nothing new (it goes back at least as far as The Blackboard Jungle), this crop of authors were perhaps unique in not passing any judgment on the characters they presented. McInerney and Ellis didn't have much luck in seeing their 1980s work translated to film, though. Since then several filmmakers have taken up the mantle of showing the dark heart of the privileged for what it really is. We can add Antoni Campos' first feature Afterschool to the list, and it's a stunning film in many respects, though not all viewers will have the patience to let its story unfold.
Robert (Ezra Miller, City Island) attends an elite prep school, where he's bored, disaffected, and mildly obsessed with watching extreme Internet videos. When he's forced to get involved in some kind of extracurricular activity, Robert chooses the video club. Because of his involvement, he's often in possession of a camera, and he just happens to catch the death by overdose of two of the school's most popular female students. Assigned to work on the memorial video, Robert grows closer to fellow student Amy (Addison Timlin, Derailed) as the school's atmosphere grows more and more toxic.
There are numerous moments of stark, haunting beauty sprinkled throughout Afterschool. Campos' distant, mobile camera captures these disaffected youths as they go about their empty existences, and he has an eye for the crushing detail that will bring their boredom home to the viewer. His compositions and use of the footage taken from the school video cameras present a world that's hermetically sealed off from ordinary existence. Robert may talk to his mother, and he may take Amy out into the woods, but he's trapped in a world that most viewers will never experience, the insular world of the prep school. Contrary to the supposed mission of the prep school to prepare students for the world at large, Afterschool shows that students are only being prepared for a life of psychiatric medication and disaffection.
Although Campos' writing and visual style provide the lion's share of Afterschool's appeal, the acting is also solid throughout. Ezra Miller as Robert is the perfect mix of innocence and cynicism, and he does a great job holding the movie together. Addison Timlin is equally effective as Robert's love interest Amy. She too must appear both innocent and jaded, and accomplishes that mixture with apparent ease. The rest of the cast, though seen less than Miller or Timlin, are equally effective in fleshing out the prep school world.
Arriving on DVD after a few years on the festival circuit, Afterschool is better than the average independent release. The film's visual style is mirrored in the careful transfer that preserves the bright sheen of cinematography. Blacks are strong, and compression artifacts aren't really a problem. The audio is equally effective, offering a surround track that balances dialogue well. Extras are impressively extensive, especially for an indie film. Much of the material is promotional in nature, so we get the film's trailers, posters, and promo videos. There are also deleted scenes, with and without commentary from Campos. They're worth watching because they do a great job of showing how the film might have been. Many of them take the focus away from Robert, and would have hurt the isolated vibe of the film, but their inclusion is interesting. We also get some outtakes, and an interview with Ezra Miller about the project. We also get a peek at Campos before he made Afterschool with the inclusion of "The Last 15," one of his short films. It shows that he's interesting in family dynamics and the effects of being rich beyond what we see in Afterschool. Finally there's a commentary with Campos, producer Josh Mond, and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. The three do a decent job of keeping things lively, mixing up production info with personal tidbits about the performances and the story.
Afterschool loses some points for being yet another film about how sad and lonely rich, privileged, white folks are. The film also loses points for being very, very slow. The film is long and moves at a glacial pace, so that even the film's most beautiful moments come only after waiting and waiting. Many, many viewers are going to turn off or fast forward this film after the first 10 minutes. Also, on the DVD side, Campos mentions in his commentary to the deleted scenes that his earlier short "Buy it Now" would be included on the disc. Since it's about a young woman selling her virginity on EBay, it would fit perfectly with the themes of Afterschool. Sadly, I couldn't find it in the special features menu.
Afterschool shows a lot of potential for director Antonio Campos. He's got an eye for detail, a willingness to go deep into his thematic territory, and strong relationships with actors. However, Afterschool is probably a bit too slow for the average viewer considering it takes a solid 30 minutes for the plot to even start to get going. Those looking for a dramatic character study of disaffected youth should probably seek out Afterschool, but only those with lots of patience will find it suits them.
For being visually interesting, Afterschool is not guilty. Director Campos is put on probation until he speeds things up on his next film.
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