March 5, 2010
Not since Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) has there been a film about teenagers that has been so deeply affecting. Certainly not a film one would categorise as ‘easy viewing’, Afterschool (2008) is an intense, intelligent and provocative account of one boy’s conflicted and troublesome high school experiences. Unlike the more conventional ‘coming of age’ dramas that probably spring to mind, Afterschool explores adolescence through the contemporary mediated experience.
Set against the backdrop of an elite American East Coast prep school, protagonist Robert (apathetically played by Ezra Miller), is something of an awkward teenager who views his own journey through adolescence as solitary and polarised. Interested in youtube-esque videos of babies, kittens, pornography and violent outbursts, Robert embarks upon a project for the school’s AV club. When, seemingly innocently, he sets up a camera in the corridor by a stairwell, Robert unexpectedly captures the traumatic event of popular twins, Anne and Marie Talbert, dying. This chilling event comes to implicate everyone at the school – staff and students – shaking every individual to their very core. Misunderstanding Robert’s experience of the event itself the head master asks him to take on the responsibility of filming & editing a tribute film for the girls who lost their lives and more significantly, to comfort and appease friends and family left behind. But when Robert’s edit of the film reflects the bleak and depraved reality of his own experiences instead of the supposedly beautiful girls’ innocent and meaningful existence, the effects of mediated representation are called into question, asking the viewer to assess the responsibility of the camera as ethical apparatus.
From the very first opening of the film it is clear that watching and being watched are not entirely separable acts, particularly when the events are, or at least seem, to be ‘real’. Often switching from home video footage, to computer screens, to windowboxing and then back to letterboxing, the image, and its parameters, are constantly changing. Shot in a way that never quite assumes anyone’s specific POV, the film has an air of documentary about it and the camera itself feels like an omniscient presence, often ominous for the severity of what ‘it’ sees. Explicated early on through a classroom scene studying Hamlet, the idea that an individual is implicated in an act through the process of viewing is integral to the film’s moral project, and the layers of viewing that are involved are indeed intended as provocations. Ultimately, the disparate examples of filmmaking styles, from mobile phone videos to ‘seamlessly’ edited films, reveal every inch of construction that is involved in visual media.
Eventually, the head master comes to the conclusion that it is ‘in a way’ everyone’s fault that the two girls died, yet another way in which writer/director/editor Antonio Campos asks the audience to consider their own ethical involvement in viewing. Towards the end of the film the focus has once again shifted and it resolutely settles upon the viewer him/herself. The final positioning of the camera is the greatest questioning of all; any position from which you are ‘allowed’ to see synchronously has positionings from which you are not allowed to see. What then is the role of the camera in terms of an ethical apparatus? How does it control the situation and manipulate the viewer so that a chosen perspective is given?
Without doubt one of the more intelligent and challenging films to be released this year, Afterschool is refreshing for its confronting and original perspective upon the adolescent experience and others’ subsequent ‘view’ of it. In an age where much of our experience or knowledge comes from mediated representations, Afterschool is an achievement in critical visual reception.
Afterschool is available from March 8th 2010 through Network Releasing. Its retail release includes; deleted scenes, mobile phone videos, teacher testimonials, New York Film Festival trailer, theatrical trailer and image gallery.