(After winning worldwide acclaim, Afterschool was finally picked up for distribution by IFC Films. While the film opens theatrically on Friday, October 2, 2009, at Cinema Village in New York City, it will be available through IFC’s OnDemand beginning Wednesday, September 30th. NOTE: This review was first published in the fall of 2008.)
Afterschool is a movie not unlike so many punky, fishnet wearing, Sartre reading high school students; the type you don’t often encounter in this kind of picture. Like that tired cliché for transitory and defensive teenage identity, Afterschool doesn’t much want to be loved and bites you for trying. It’s a film that sees, with alarming precision and clear-eyed, long-take candor, the emotional atrophy that an entire generation of children and young adults has been subjected to; interpersonal relationships which have become dominated and mediated by digital modes of communication, coupled with the abdication of responsibility on the part of the generations preceding them. Any film with this much to say about modern life, especially when said in such a rigorous and austere fashion, will certainly have its naysayers, of which Afterschool has gathered a minor cult.
Cocky. Remote. Derivative. These are some of the pejoratives lobbed at this astounding feature debut by 25-year-old writer/director/editor Antonio Campos, the youngest winner ever of Cannes’ short film prize for his NYU undergrad Buy It Now three years ago. Campos returned to Cannes this year—in the Un Certain Regard section—with this canon bomb of a movie that left many feeling assaulted and talked down to. But don’t confuse its measured self-assuredness for narcissism, its brute force for a visual beatdown; pretension and a heavily indebted aesthetic are two very different things.
While watching Afterschool, which unhurriedly shares the tale of Robert (Ezra Miller), a prep schooler whose predilection for uncontextualized internet video—be it Saddam Hussein’s hanging, cats who can miraculously play the piano, and, most especially, degrading amateur porn—informs his all too reductive and unduly sexualized view of community and femininity, one can’t help but feel the hovering specter of Michael Haneke. This all comes to a startling head when Robert, while shooting his own video for a class project, happens upon a pair of popular blonde twins, mid-overdose, outside of the girl’s bathroom.
You could throw in Bela Tarr’s tableau style as another influence, or Gus Van Sant’s maximum glide aesthetic in Elephant, but nothing to date matches the audacity and sheer visceral jolt of Afterschool’s most troubling and fascinating passages, which, when taken to their logical thematic conclusion, suggest just how easy it has been for us to forget the obscene amount of uncut sexual exploitation many young people can digest with just a three clicks of a button, and how quickly these new modes of consumption are shaping their sexual selves.
While our not-so-sympathetic protagonist witnesses many terrible things, some simulated, some not, he comes to be emblematic of many in his generation, coming of age at a time when the internet—that great level playing field of high culture and smut, the useful and the disposable—is shaping the sexual and moral identity of young people in incalculable ways. An indispensable film, clinical and chilling (thanks largely to Jody Lee Lipes’ bravura camerawork), Afterschool signals the arrival of an important new voice in American Cinema.
— Brandon Harris