Andy Warhol was convinced we’d get 15 minutes of fame, but in this modern world, we’re doomed to five minutes in a YouTube clip. We live in a disposable shaky-cam society, where most of us spend our time with our eyes locked on a screen: television, computer, or cellular. Our lives exist in bite-sized bytes of boredom, writing paragraph after paragraph about the commonplace minutia of our lives. Major political events are Twitter Trends, and CNN broadcasts footage of assassinations captured on camera phones. We forget to have lives because we’re too busy building Facebook albums with the same fourteen photos taken at ten-second intervals to prove we know other people. We’ve seen everything the world has to offer, because somebody somewhere put it on the Internet. We’re bored, and so we’ve become boring.
Afterschool is a testament to the drudgery of existence. It can be summed up in a sentence: high school sucks because life sucks. It reminds me of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, with this sort of musical chairs of high school verite where normal looking teenagers “um” and “uh” for an hour and a half as we wait for something to happen. Except writer/director/editor Antonio Campos doesn’t offer any enlightenment, insight, or original thinking. Bad things happen because bad things happen in life. And now we have to watch it through terrible film-school-thesis cinematography. Blurred backgrounds and half-frames aren’t artistic metaphors; they’re just the sign of someone trying to show off they’ve seen a foreign film before. It only works if you actually have something to say. This film is like watching footage of someone trying to light an M-80. For almost two hours. You keep waiting because you figure someone’s going to blow their hand off or something, right? Nobody would make a movie about this unless something devastating happens, right? So you wait. And wait. And wait. Then you make a sandwich. Probably turkey. Turkey’s a good sandwich. And then finally, in the last five minutes, something of interest finally happens, and you realize life is really a series of waits, from unpleasant experience to unpleasant experience until you finally die. Which you are now welcoming because you sat through this pointless dreck.
The most frustrating part is Afterschool isn’t a bad film. You just can’t really figure out why you’re still watching it. Rob (Ezra Miller) is a lonely, losery, kind of quiet prep-school kid. He likes watching violent videos on the interwebs (like Saddam Hussein getting hung or random high school girl fights). He likes watching demeaning pornography where anonymous trailer-tarts get physically and verbally abused by their filmers. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, doesn’t think people like him, and doesn’t really like school. Rob likes Amy (Addison Timlin), and they join the AV Club because you have to join something. They spend the next few minutes videotaping nothing and awkwardly flirting. While shooting footage of the hallway at the school, they accidentally capture two popular senior twins overdosing.
Now, I’m making this sound far more captivating than it actually is. I had to go back and rewatch the trailer to figure out why Afterschool was supposed to be so interesting. I realize in watching the snippets of fistfights and awkward sex and the screaming face of Rob why you’d be drawn in. Distilled and repackaged, it seems like it would be this wild insane madness. Instead, every single one of these moments is drawn out and pulverized, like cocaine cut with baking powder. So much so, you’d be better making a cake with it. Every moment where something of even mild interest might occur is bastardized with cheap film school trickery. Campos is trying to pull an Emperor’s New Clothes by creating scenes that occur out of frame or by filming at a distance. If I do it all arty, it’s art! And I guarantee there will be people drawn in by this. I wholeheartedly await getting berated for my lack of appreciation for this delicate masterpiece.
Truth be told, if it were just a terrible story, it wouldn’t nearly be so frustrating. Campos and his young and relatively unheard-of cast do a remarkable job capturing the naïveté and awkwardness of high school. The teachers are portrayed as oblivious and useless, particularly the guidance counselor and dean. The last five minutes have the possibility of being something outstanding and haunting and telling. But really, in the wake of everything that comes before it, it just feels like more shoddy razzle-dazzle. I can almost feel Campos waiting behind the screen, wearing a beret and tiny chinbeard, ready to leap out and rake the air with cat claws while hissing “arteeeeeste”.
Afterschool would be an effective and interesting film if it hadn’t been done before, a thousand times, and better. Like blogs and Twitter, not everything really needs to be said. More importantly, if you are going to say it, say it well, and have a point. Campos had a million chances to punch the audience in the face with insight or horror, but instead, he seemed too busy setting up the next shot with the actors in dim light and out of frame. Filmmaking can and should be painting with light. But when you blend all the colors together, they turn a muddy brown. And we all know what else is that color.