It is easy to see that somewhere in Afterschool there is the germ of a good movie. Which makes it all the more frustrating that this is a terrible, terrible movie.
26 year old director Antonio Campos has already been making films for half his life and he clearly isn’t short of confidence (he dedicated a short made when he was 13 to Stanley Kubrick). His most recent film Buy It Now was intriguing. It was the story of a girl who decides to sell her virginity on ebay, told both as a ‘documentary’ and a drama. Afterschool, similarly, focuses on teenagers and has the same unpolished, observed style. The difference is that in (at least the first version of) Buy It Now that style seemed to have purpose, to be used to the advantage of the story while here it seems like Campos showing off how clever he is, to the great detriment of his film.
The slight story is set at an American boarding school where two students die of a drug overdose. The film chronicles the school’s reaction to this event, largely through the eyes of Robert (Ezra Miller), a chance witness to the event. Much of the film is concerned with the making of a tribute video to the dead students and this is reflected in Campos’ style, which is defiantly unpolished. The problem is that, while I understand why Campos shoots the film in this fashion, it looks amateurish and is frustrating in the extreme.
Campos' framing is often deliberately off. Characters only half appear in shots, the camera is too close, or too far away, to get them entirely in focus. He’s trying to express how teenagers are wrapped up in themselves and their tight groups of friends, to the exclusion of the outside world - especially the adult world - but it just looks like he’s randomly positioned the camera and hired a drunk focus puller. The shallow focus is incredibly irritating; it means that you can only ever see about 20% of what is in the shot. It might be clever to begin with, but it begins to look like the only idea Campos has.
If the visuals were the only problem with Afterschool then the film as a whole might have worked, but sadly nothing here really works. The story is fundamentally broken and impossible to care about. The girls whose death precipitates the story appear only to die. We never know anything about them as people, or their relationship to the other people in the school. There is a similar idea running through Heathers, where we see the hypocritical tributes to Heather Chandler after her ‘suicide’. There is no real clue to what Campos is doing here - are the tributes to these girls heartfelt or hypocritical? - we never know or care, because we don’t have a clue who they were.
Sadly this lack of engagement also extends to the people we actually meet when they are alive. Every character in Afterschool has a maximum of one note and Robert is as blank a slate as Twilight’s Bella. Endless minutes of this already punishingly long 107-minute film are devoted to Robert staring into space, or at a desk, or at his feet. Why does Campos think I’m going to care about this? With so little to work with it is perhaps little surprise that the film’s performances are almost uniformly bereft of emotion, stilted and false in the extreme. The only glimmer of light comes from Addison Timlin, a 17-year-old actress who impresses with a strong performance as a freshman less innocent than she looks.
At the heart of Afterschool there is an interesting story, but it is so badly told from both a narrative and a technical standpoint that this ends up being one of 2009’s very worst films.