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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"AFTERSCHOOL"


 
Afterschool fits in the same category as Gus Van Sant's Elephant or Jacob Aaron Estes' Mean Creek as a portrait of disconnected youth. Set at an East Coast prep school, it is the story of Robert (Ezra Miller), a student attending the school only at the behest of his mother, who ignores his declarations of unhappiness. Robert spends his days in his dorm room, watching often violent, degrading, or pornographic YouTube videos. He watches them unflinchingly, but later confesses to a guidance counselor that he "likes them."

Required to take part in an extracurricular activity, Robert naturally gravitates to the A/V club. While shooting some "B-roll" with a video camera, he accidentally captures the death of two classmates. The school is rocked by the shocking deaths, so no one really notices Robert's seeming lack of a reaction; they assume he's just in shock too. That guidance counselor is wise, though, and he senses Robert is somehow affected by what happened. He therefore gets what he thinks will be a healing idea: since Robert captured the deaths, he should be in charge of editing together a memorial video honoring the deceased students. What the kid turns in is the work of a young person completely disengaged from his own feelings, and it creates a ripple effect.

Afterschool has a very provocative premise. So many young people these days are watching extreme videos online. You don't have to look hard to find uploaded videos of teenagers fighting, people getting into physical accidents, or edgy porn. The movie suggests that we may be dangerously close to creating a culture of kids who are desensitized to such things, to the point where seeing the pain of others in front of their own faces barely registers. There's an interesting counterpoint with one of Robert's friends. He asks to see the video more than once, then is deeply troubled by it later on; things take on a different meaning for him when it's someone familiar, as opposed to an unknown person on a computer video. Robert doesn't quite get this, possibly because he's too far gone.

Writer/director Antonio Campos does a very good job of avoiding exploitation. The deliberate pace and feel of Afterschool reminded me of the works of David Gordon Green. It would have been too easy to make this into a Message Movie or, worse, a piece of cheap schlock. Instead, Campos wants us to observe Robert, to spend some time seeing the world through his eyes. The story is not so much about how or why the students die as it is about the complete inability of Robert to register the event according to conventional expectations.

The style of Afterschool will drive some people nuts. I must admit that, as much as I admired the film, it visually drove me a bit bonkers. Presumably to accentuate Robert's sense of being disconnected, Campos sets up his camera so that the actors are often half in the shot and half out of it. There is a scene in which Robert films the dead girls' parents for his tribute video. The camera focuses on a long table and a window. Robert stands to the far left side of the screen. The mother is only partially visible next to him, and the father is off-camera, altogether. That gets irritating. So do the shots where kids' heads are above the frame, or below it, or just off the side of it. I understand the artistic decision, but it clearly doesn't work in terms of completely drawing you in. Yes, the film required a less bludgeoning touch to keep it from becoming exploitative, but I think the director goes a bit too far.

Nevertheless, this is a little movie well worth checking out. The performances are very natural, and the themes are enticingly provocative. Best of all, you can see Afterschool right now. The film is in theaters, but also available via IFC on Demand until Dec. 29. If your cable company offers IFC on Demand, you can order the movie with the push of a button. It's a great way to bring a quality independent motion picture into your living room.

( out of four)


Afterschool is unrated but contains adult language and sexuality, brief drug use, and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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