Thursday, February 25, 2010
Afterschool (Antonio Campos, 2008)
Here is one of the most refreshing and compelling directorial debut's to come along in quite awhile. Antonio Campos was only 24 when he directed (from his own screenplay) Afterschool, the prep school drama that has drawn him comparisons to heavyweights such as Gus Van Sant, Stanley Kubrick and Michelangelo Antonioni, among others. Told mainly in carefully composed static shots, often with the action contained to the periphery, Afterschool gives us the story of Rob (Ezra Miller), a distanced, affectless tenth grade student at Brighton, an upper crust New England private school, who spends his spare time watching viral videos online and putting up with his cocaine addict/dealer roommate (and likely best friend) Dave. At Brighton, an extra-curricular course is required of the students, and instead of going the popular sports route, the meek and introverted Rob decides to join the video club. One day, while shooting some footage in an empty hallway for class, Rob inadvertently captures the drug overdose and subsequent death of the Talbert sisters, twins from a well-to-do family. Instead of calling for help, Rob leaves the camera in place, walks over to the sisters, and cradles one in his arms as she takes her final breath. No points for guessing that - Surprise!- Rob now finds himself the center of the latest online viral video.
Afterschool is fascinating for myriad reasons, but the central point of dramatic interest seems to be Rob himself. The main question being, why is he so frighteningly unaffected by everything? Is he merely the latest casualty of the YouTube generation, desensitized and alienated from his surroundings, conditioned only to respond to moments of "purity", moments that capture something "real"? One of the best sequences in the film plays off this notion, as Rob sits down with the school principal to view a tribute video he's been asked to create for the deceased twins. However, instead of the sappy over-sentimentalized piece expected of him, Rob creates a patchwork of "real" moments as he sees them, moments of people expressing pity, disgust, or even complete indifference towards the twins. An interview with a friend of the girls shows that he didn't even really know them, and was distanced by a kind of awestruck worship. Moments, in other words, that you would never regularly see in a video of this kind. At another point in the film, Rob, armed with his video camera, grabs his girlfriend by the throat, emulating a violent porno he watched earlier, and we get the impression that his obsession with online videos can no longer simply be contained to his consciousness.
It's only with a final, fleeting moment of shock and realization that we truly see what Afterschool is going for, and it's a startling, haunting sentiment that Campos has no reservations expressing. This is a film to watch and absorb, not only for its deeply engrossing story and sleek, distinct visual style, but also because of what it has to say in regard to the age of gluttonous, unprecedentedly accessible media we live in, and the effect it could have on an already solipsistic-prone demographic. If Afterschool is any indication, Campos is a major talent, and I certainly look forward to seeing what he will provide us with next.