The few compelling scenes in Antonio Campos’ Afterschool occur within its first thirty seconds and do not belong to the movie itself. Robert (Ezra Miller) watches You Tube clips from his boarding school dorm. There are cackling babies and sleeping kittens. The bits grow ominous: a skateboarder crashes onto concrete; Saddam Hussein’s is hanged; a young girl is debased in a needlessly protracted porn outtake. Sadly for the audience, it only gets worse. When Robert starts shooting his own videos, his camera catches the drug overdoses of two popular students. The memorial video he is assigned to produce details the school’s and his own unraveling.
Afterschool mistakes formal pretension and glacial pacing for art. Cinematographer Jodie Lee Lipes favors spare wide shots and reluctant pans. This refinement suggests a corrective to crude viral videos. But the framing is still an amateurish debacle. The images lack the beauty and foreboding intrigue found in Elephant and Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant’s deliberately paced studies of teenage disaffection. Some good will come out of Afterschool if You Tube amateurs realize they can save their money and skip film school.
Campos’ dialogue is similarly muted and unadorned, realism at odds with the clinical photography. Characters betray zero emotion and lack a plot that might have mitigated these flaws. But there is no narrative arc or climax to supplement the contemplative stillness; the film is all reaction. A cheap last minute twist excels only at audience manipulation. Afterschool is a joyless lecture on How We Live Now. It suffers from the same shortcomings of the Web 2.0 culture it means to critique. Only here, artifice compounds banality. Stick with the sleepy kittens.