"Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth." - Michael Haneke
Young writer, director and editor Antonio Campos had already staked out his chosen thematic territory with a previous short film, "Buy it Now", where he detailed - in a mixture of faux video documentary and conventionally told drama - the story of a sixteen-year-old girl's determination to sell her virginity to the highest bidder on Ebay. Campos's debut feature film "Afterschool" is another tale of modern teenage life as mediated, shaped and warped by the internet age; here, YouTube and the cellphone, and the unlimited access this modern age of Internet wonders gives us to any image one may care to pull from the ether, are initially (seemingly) cast as agents of the corruption of young malleable minds during the film's measured opening act - apparently making this a case of self-conscious arthouse cinema put in the service of, if anything, rather a popular tabloid truism of the noughties.
In the opening sequence we cut between various random clips from cell phones posted on a You Tube-like site: a cute baby laughing at its father, a boy falling off his bike during an attempted stunt, Saddam Hussein's fumbled execution, a cat playing the piano, illicit Iraq war footage; this segues into icy, blurred video taken from a (presumably) fictional porn site, charmingly named Nastycumholes.com, in which a half-naked, inanely grinning teenage girl is sullenly bullied by the unseen operator of the camcorder filming the encounter. The camera pulls back to reveal a lone silhouetted figure in a darkened room, hunched over the illuminated monitor of his computer, furiously masturbating over the small dosage of pixilated fear caught like amber in the girl's eyes behind her frozen smile. The figure - a teenage boy - is interrupted by his dorm mate and friends returning from a night out, and the group end up watching the latest 'cool' school fight captured on someone's phone and posted on the Internet; they stare vacantly, occasionally muttering the odd barely interested comment, as, on the computer screen, two girls batter each other senseless in a school corridor somewhere ...
This is a theme one may already have recognised among some of the films of Austrian-raised film-maker Michael Haneke, particularly the disturbing "Benny's Video", and it can't be denied that Campos's film wears this and several other of its influences quite openly, not only echoing Haneke's films' persistent themes (social alienation in modern industrial society and how it is facilitated by the politically ordered structure of the media and its attendant technology) but even mimicking their stylistic conceits, particularly Hanke's so-called 'glacial', fragmented approach, in the film's progress from scene to scene: long sequences that play out with seemingly not very much happening, and deliberately placed - but decidedly odd - framing where much of the action seems to be taking place just out of shot. At times it puts "Afterschool" in danger of playing almost like a parody of what 'arty', serious cinema is supposed to look like.
But Campos largely escapes the didactic tone and generalising nature that sometimes mars Haneke's work, focusing his and the film's sights instead on the inhabitants of an elite East Coast private preparatory school, perhaps intending it as a microcosm of privileged society as a whole, but deliberately confusing his own message by consistently drawing attention to the film's own editorial contrivances (admittedly with techniques blatantly ripped from Haneke), that often act as a self-conscious recreation of the documentary-like, found footage vérité feel of the very kinds of clips that appeal so much to the film's emotionally vacant protagonist, Robert (a nicely underplayed performance by Ezra Miller). This brings a note of fragile ambiguity to the film's apparent message that doesn't often come over so strongly in Haneke's own work (despite the above quote from the director), implicating not only the film's subjects, but the viewer and even the film-maker himself in the matrix of self-deceit that permeates everyday life at this school for the children of the moneyed elite of America.
Robert is an introverted and isolated student at an expensive boarding school; he does well in his classes though, so the school doesn't recognise a problem, and when he phones home to confess his feeling that "no one here like me", his mother almost immediately suggests medication - pleading with him not to make her have to worry about him because she's far too busy! Robert has a liking for clips from the Internet and gonzo footage from porn sites, particularly if it seems real, not faked. His roommate disappears at the weekends to party with the school's two most popular students (whose parents also happen to be some of its richest contributors): two beautiful blonde twin sisters who head a cliquey gang of privileged kids that spends its weekends taking coke and heroin. Robert is left alone then, for "he isn't cool enough to be introduced to them," or so his roommate casually tells him.
However, when he's given a video documentary assignment with an attractive fellow classmate, Amy (Addison Timlin), Robert accidentally captures the hideous deaths of the twins on video while filming some establishing shots of the school - both girls die protracted and painful deaths after taking contaminated heroin cut with rat poison. As the school deals with the potential fall-out from the deaths of its most popular students, Robert's strangely unmoved reaction to the horrific event ( itself caught on film by the boy's own footage which, despite their desperate pleading, depicts him simply kneeling over the girls as they slowly expire) leads the school's principle and counsellor to decide it would aid Robert's recovery from this traumatic event if he were to be put in charge of overseeing a video memorial tribute to the two girls. But the material Robert comes up with is anything but healing, showing up the ill-ease and hypocrisy that lies thinly veiled by the elegant facade of decency the school authorities wish to portray to their pupils' parents.
In fact, Robert's tribute film simply mimics the 'reality' clips he watches in his free time. Whether this is deliberate or whether he simply stumbles upon the style unintentionally because that is what he is used to, is left ambiguous. Robert's film simply inelegantly strings together the 'off-cuts' left over from his interviews with his fellow classmates and teachers, instinctively rejecting his contributors' scripted or thought-out tributes to the dead girls in favour of the moment just before, or just after, they've said their piece, when their faces seem to capture something deeper than the bland words of condolence or their prettified eulogies. Of course, the film is stark, awkwardly edited and poorly framed: "Is this a joke!" exclaims the school's dismayed principle upon first viewing it. "It doesn't even have any music!" It will not escape the attention of the viewer, of course, that the style of Robert's film precisely emulates the style "Afterschool" itself adopts throughout!
As the film progresses, Campos emphasises all the familiar sensibilities and visual tropes of the stereotypical arthouse film - with the director's arty Michelangelo Antonioni-esque penchant for long takes and disconnected scenes of stark long-shots, with the camera held in a single position no matter where the characters move in the spacious 2:35.1 aspect ratio frame - and runs them interchangeably with the footage Robert is filming for his initial media class assignment with his schoolmate Amy, until it becomes increasingly difficult to tell when we are watching the film through the raw, unedited point-of-view of Robert's footage, or Campos's own, third-person-removed representation of events at the school. There is no non-diegetic music used at any point until the end credits, and then it is merely rather ironically echoing the music used in the re-edited school memorial video. One long scene plays out for several minutes before it suddenly freezes and rewinds (recalling a combination of similar ideas in "Funny Games" and "Cache"). It is only then that the camera pulls back enough to reveal that we have been watching Robert's footage on a monitor screen the whole time. When Robert begins to respond to Amy's flirtatious overtures, we see it framed through the video camera that's been left running for their assignment, their heads frequently disappearing below screen; yet a later fumbling sex scene between the two is constructed by Campos in a similarly distancing, oddly framed way. Disturbingly, Robert finds the death of the two girls, and his own reaction to it, posted on his favourite clips site, but it is filmed from an entirely different angle from his own video footage, and looks more like something filmed on a cellphone (mobile phone), meaning someone else must have been watching the event as well!
By the time we reach later scenes, like the one that takes place after the deaths, when the principle gives a speech in the school chapel before the assembled students, just before teachers and friends of the girls take the lectern to pay tribute to them, it is impossible to tell from the off-beat framing - which places half the contributor's faces so low that they disappear below the bottom of the fame - whether we are seeing the sequence as conceived by Campos, the third-person film-maker, or whether it is intended as another reconstruction of Robert's footage.
In the end it simply doesn't matter, Campos seems to be saying in an echo perhaps of Antonioni's "Blowup" - because, of course, the whole film is a contrivance anyway and so there is no ultimate truth to tell. The key to the whole thing is perhaps the play scene from Hamlet, which Robert is seen studying in his English class early on in the film. In it, Hamlet stages a play in front of his uncle, Claudius, in which his father's death is re-enacted, hoping that Claudius's reaction will give away his involvement in the killing. Robert's film (a film within a film), perhaps unintentionally, holds a mirror up to the culpability of the school in the deaths of the two girls, glimpsed fleetingly in the smarmy insincerity of the school principle or the haunted looks of the fellow pupils who just wanted to be like them. But Campos saves Afterschool's final trick for the very last moments of the film, when it appears to breach the dramatic fourth wall in a way that seems to want us to question the very nature of the medium that has been doing the questioning itself up until then - asking whether it is ultimately any more able to tell the truth than the laughably cloying and obfuscating memorial video that eventually gets shown to the students. It is a difficult question that is left up to viewers to decide for themselves.
Network present the movie in a nice-looking 2:35.1 anamorphic print and include some interesting extras that compliment the main body of the film by adding yet more flavour to it. To get the actors in the required frame of mind, Campos apparently filmed a great deal of footage which he never intended to actually include in the finished film. This explains, perhaps, why the deleted scenes footage runs for a substantial 53 minutes! Some of it consists of scenes we've already seen in the film but which run even longer here; other footage though is completely new, and adds even more colouring to the already stark and bleakly rendered brew Campos has produced here. Other extras include the mobile phone footage (excerpts of which we frequently glimpse the kids in the movie watching) and teachers' video testimonials. The set is rounded off with the New York film Festival Trailer and the film's original theatrical trailer.
"Afterschool" is a very gripping, thought-provoking and cleverly acted debut from the 26 year-old writer and director, and gets a worthwhile treatment on DVD from Network. Well worth checking out.