Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****½
Afterschool -- the not quite new film by Antonio Campos that made its New York debut two years ago at the 2008 NY Film Festival, after playing Cannes and then moving on to Berlin -- begins with a scene that brings to mind the finale of Olivier Assayas' Demonlover. As you might expect from something that startling, the movie takes off into a narrative that addresses the subjects of kids, adults, teachers, school and society in general - always with a camera seemingly present. It's not pretty.
In fact, it's been awhile since I've seen anything that depressed me as much as this film. This is not because of its quality level, for Campos has achieved something difficult and demanding on his end and ours: making a movie about the next generation that is slow, often very quiet, and runs the risk of alienating its audience. That it will not put off thoughtful adults is due to Campos' technical skill and his careful planning of what happens and when -- and how the insular little world that the writer/director captures reacts to the event at the center of the movie.
Hypocrisy runs rampant in Afterschool, and though the kids are guilty of this, it soon becomes clear that most, if not all, of their role models are near-geniuses at this all-too-human endeavor. The depression sets in as we realize how little hope for youth there seems to be. Mr. Campos frames his wide-screen images beautifully, and because so much of the movie is about the act of watching -- on computers and in cameras both hidden and in full view -- there is always a "remove" present. Although this distances us initially, we soon grow used to it and are then able to think and feel as does our protagonist, a remarkable performance from first-timer Ezra Miller. Also in Campos' surprisingly illustrious cast are the likes of Michael Stuhlbarg (so good in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man), Rosemarie Dewitt (her body and voice, if not her face), Lee Wilkof and Christopher McCann.
For much of the film there is only ambient sound, and the visuals often include adults seen in partial view, almost as though they were disembodied. The film's sex scene, though consensual, has got to be among the least enjoyable ever pictured. Another scene, in a dorm room in the middle of the night, is as weird as it is powerful. The director's use of distance and his ability to visually isolate his "hero" is achieved gracefully, without undue pushing. And his script is a marvel of chosen "reality": small, tight and un-showy but always on the mark. One of the final lines of dialog, spoken by Stuhlbarg -- "Brighton will be here for you" -- could be one of the scariest in movie history.
There is so much to consider here in terms of both content and film-making skills that I fear for Campos' ability, at such a young age (25), to keep his ego in check after the kind of praise he will surely be receiving. But that's his problem. Audiences should have an easier go of it, though the movie is damned demanding. And depressing.
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