Afterschool is a film that I really want to like. And I really do like parts of it, but it doesn’t completely add up.
Robert (Ezra Miller) is a video obsessed, pornography-obsessed, somewhat-antisocial prep school teenager. While shooting a project for his video class he witnesses and records the deaths of two popular teenage girls and slowly begins a downward spiral.
Director Antonio Campos is certainly of the Michael Haneke school of thought. The camera is frequently static and wide. Actors come in and out of frame instead of the camera reframing as they stand or move. Long silences dominate. There’s no diegetic music and obsession with video is a major theme.
Haneke, particularly in his films Benny’s Video, Cache and Funny Games, dissects our cultural obsession with video and insatiable blood-lust, as well as the power of the director to control emotion and play with expectations (see the infamous rewind sequence in Funny Games).
Campos looks at video in a similar way. The film opens with a series of Youtube clips, ultimately ending in a longer look at a pornographic website. We often look through Robert’s camera as he shoots for class. A second clip of the girls’ death soon appears on Youtube, taken from a cell-phone camera and posted by an anonymous second witness. The ending of the film, in a very Camera Buff moment, turns video into killer, stalker, voyeur in a powerful moment of odd personification.
All of the above is generally interesting and uneasy. The film remains generally tense and Campos feels in control throughout.
There are problems with the film and a major one is that Campos’ criticisms feel too on the nose. SPOILER: at the end of the film we see that Robert actually covered one of the dying girl’s mouths, effectively smothering her and killing her, rather than going for help. There is little motive given for this action, other than a) his obsession with misogynist violence via the porno he watches online and b) his desire for control via his desire to make video/films.
But the reveal at the end feels cheap and the through-line of either of the above isn’t strong enough. Because Robert actually kills one of the girls the emotion isn’t as strong. Before we know that he killed her our read of Robert is that he’s traumatized by what he saw. His inaction is enough to implicate and criticize our video-obsessed culture. By making him violent instead of simply passive the film reiterates the old direct cultural influence argument (do violent video games make people violent? Afterschool says ‘yes’).
It’s too easy. Looking at our Haneke comparison point we find that Haneke too makes this comparison in Benny’s Video, but includes a myriad of other influences. Haneke’s film also seems to have his character act as much out of curiosity and bewilderment than because he’s seen violent films.
Campos tries to push his argument. The opening pornographic film shows the unseen camera operator pretend to strangle the woman portrayed onscreen. Later, when turning the video camera on the student and friend with whom he is collaborating on the video project with Robert reaches his hand out and pretends to strangle her. And then of course there’s the murder, where he essentially does strangle the dying girl. In some sense, therefore, the murder is his conveniently being able to act out this violent rape fantasy that is portrayed from the onset of the film. But nothing comes of it. I feel less that I’m dissecting and more that I’m simply watching.
There are plenty of things to like about Afterschool: a sequence where Robert presents a rough cut of his video to the principal is awkward, hilarious and tragic all at once. The ending, where the camera takes on a life of its own, is creepy and foreboding. A scene between Robert and his video partner/girlfriend Amy (Addison Timlin) where they lose their virginity feels true and well placed within the context of the film.
Campos is a director to watch, and Afterschool is effectively difficult, but it doesn’t quite add to a full-fledged and complete piece.