A giggling baby plays with his dad; a hair-tugging fight outside a suburban store; a bad bike spill; a grainy Saddam Hussein, noose around neck, drops to his death; a piano-playing cat; bodies in Iraq; clip follows clip, until we see a skinny blonde girl, nervous, uncomfortable, staring into the lens of an unseen cameraman, who is telling her to inform her mum on camera that she is a whore before the porn action starts. The website is ‘nastycumholes.com’, and a young student is wanking to it as his roommate bangs on the door to be let in. The first line of dialogue is ‘I smell come’.
Welcome to Antonio Campos’s feature debut Afterschool. We are in a preppy American boarding school in New York state when a class video project accidentally captures a tragedy; two popular seniors die, and we follow the reactions of the school, of its pupils, and particularly of the wanking student from the beginning, Robert (Ezra Miller), who shot the incident, an uncool and unliked tenth-grader who becomes a source of anxiety for the institution. He is tasked, by way of therapy, with making a memorial video to the two girls, and it quickly becomes clear that there is very much a right way and a wrong way to think about the girls, the school and the tragedy, and that Robert just isn’t in tune with everybody else. ‘I think I’m not a good person’, he says to his mum over the phone, and she promptly suggests medication.
If, as is usually the case, high school/college movies are intended as portraits of America in microcosm, then this is the most bilious, vicious picture of that nation I’ve encountered in years. The school establishment and student body are damned alike, a world of hypocrisy and empty platitudes, where bullying is studiously ignored, drugs are the currency of cool and problem kids with rich parents just can’t be problem kids. Evil here is not some malevolent force but an absence of feeling, a failure to focus; everybody is so preoccupied with appearances they just can’t acknowledge the reality of the situation. It says something about the tone of the film that eerie, blank Robert emerges as almost heroic in this context for producing a strangely clumsy, insensitive, but ultimately truthful memorial video, while the school’s official version proves to be an appallingly glib, black comic highlight.
Afterschool‘s low-key, observational surface conceals its tight structure, coming across as Kubrick via mumblecore. Campos constantly asks us to consider whose eyes we are looking through and whose version of events we should believe. It lingers where we would pull away, and stares where we would not think to look. The sound is muted and music-free. The dark nature of the story is emphasised by visually inventive, oddly framed photography throughout, imitating both the lopsided compositions of amateur cameramen and the disaffected gaze of a sociopath, building a woozy, unhealthy atmosphere, a world viewed through the wrong head. It’s creepy and smart, and it may just screw with your head for days - recommended.