– Originally published elsewhere at the tail end of 2009.
It’s clear with the pervasiveness of the Internet, everything from brutal violence to accidental moments of joy become instantly available at the click of a mouse. Whether you’re picking pleasure or poison, the artificiality of these still images and streaming videos cannot be denied, even if they are supposedly capturing a “real” event. Nor can the effects such media have on America’s youth, especially recent generations born into an existence surrounded and consumed by technology. Diehards revel in these faux representations of the world that make up a vast, potent, and ultimately debilitating alternate reality.
Antonio Campos’ methodical debut feature, Afterschool, attempts to confront these complex issues by creating an almost bleached vision of modern-day adolescence, addressing social isolation and angst as if they were common threads in every child’s development. The result is a frighteningly restrained horror film that charts one young man’s descent into moral ambiguity while the unassuming world around him continues to fester with prescribed apathy. But Afterschool is not specifically a universal critique of technology, or the educational system, or even parental ignorance, but all these things occurring simultaneously, on a relegated and expected level, a system of normalcy bent and twisted and damn familiar.
Campos’ fly in the ointment is named Robert, a seemingly soft-spoken 10th grader at a posh New England boarding school, who feels completely out-of-place. Afterschool begins with a montage of short Internet clips – a baby laughing hysterically, a fight between two high school girls, American soldiers walking by a mangled body, and finally a close-up of a young woman getting ready to perform in a porn movie. As the camera operator verbally abuses the woman with sexual degradations and harsh verbiage and begins to choke her, Campos cuts to a long shot of Robert furiously masturbating, his back illuminated only by the computer screen, the rest of his room drenched in darkness.
Robert is a shell, a shadow of something else, a riddle of youth searching for pleasure, or connection, or identity in a completely artificial and manipulative forum. His dorm room is blindingly white, highlighted by humming fluorescents suffocating the life out of the space. Even the school itself seems to be operating in neutral, the everyday lives of teachers and students occurring in a vacuum of empowerment and hierarchy, everyone content to go with the flow until something terrible happens. Not ironically, Robert’s world becomes even more disjointed when he accidentally captures the brutal deaths of popular twin girls on his video camera, a sequence riddled with unanswered questions, gaps, and terrible conclusions.
Afterschool overtly examines the manipulation filmmaking has on a viewer, specifically how aesthetics like editing, scripting, and cinematography subvert truth rather than capture it. Campos goes beyond this surface level observation, instilling a brilliant visual motif to display the inadequacy of the medium in capturing certain elements of character and space. With his slow, often still camera, Campos reveals false emotions and sympathy, catching characters in lies and deception. He often captures people on the fringes of the frame, dissecting bodies, focusing on hands, ears, hair, and legs, allowing off-screen dialogue to advance the scene. It all adds up to something horrific, an incomplete vision of life that cannot be completed by the Cinema.
Images and representations merge together, important narrative events are left out, and Afterschool sees something more frightening than merely a troubled youth in Robert. Campos builds character out of dead space, empty doorways, and “clips of things that seem real”, disavowing reality for shortened half-truths. When asked to edit a memorial video for the deceased twins, Robert produces something akin to an Art film, a timeline of symbolic B-roll footage, indecisive interviewees, producing complete fragmentation of emotional impact. The film is scorned by the administration and re-edited into a puff piece by another student, calling into question which version is more relevant? Campos boldly allows Robert a voice in the process, and even though his vision borders on insanity, it oozes with subtext.
If Afterschool is indeed a horror film, it’s important to reveal the monster at its core. Unlike any youth film of recent years, Campos reveals a collective beast eating away at our emotional synapses, waiting for the right moment to erode feeling altogether. It might be a slow, monotonous decline, but the machines are already hard at work whittling us down to nothingness. The monstrous thing is, we’re enjoying every second of it.