Sunday 23 August 2009
It's hardly uncommon for school days to be portrayed in the cinema as the unhappiest days of your life, but it's rarely been done with such astonishing conviction as it is in Afterschool, a needle-sharp, pitch-black comedy from a 25-year-old writer-director, Antonio Campos. The setting is an ivy-clad co-ed prep school not far from New York, a place where the well-groomed pupils stroll across the well-tended lawns to the chapel every morning. There aren't any bullying campaigns or shooting sprees, any gangs or (deliberate) suicides, and yet the pupils are so callous, and the teachers so craven, that adult viewers will be thanking their lucky stars that they've been to their last assembly.
It's all seen from the perspective of the 17-year-old Robert (Ezra Miller). The closest thing he has to a friend is his patrician room-mate, David (Jeremy Allen White), the school drug dealer, but their relationship begins and ends with Robert letting David copy his homework in the vain hope that David will one day introduce him to the school's alpha females, the Talbert twins.
Robert's only solace is the voyeuristic video clips he watches on the internet, so when the headmaster instructs him to take up an extra-curricular hobby, he agrees to make a video about the school, and he happens to be filming an empty corridor when both of the Talberts come bursting through a doorway and collapse on the floor, dead. The fact that they've been killed by snorting cocaine cut with rat poison isn't enough to tarnish their status as the school's golden girls, so Robert is prevailed upon to turn his video into a memorial tribute.
As his project progresses, we
see more and more of the hypocrisy and corruption at the heart of the school, but it's only at the very end that the implications of every snatch of overheard conversation become horribly clear.
What makes the film especially crushing is how much it resembles real life – or, at least, real life as it's shown in the video clips Robert is addicted to. There's no music, and the dialogue is muttered by the unknown cast as they drift in and out of shot. It's a cross between Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Michael Haneke's Caché, while the narcotised numbness of its overprivileged cast suggests that this must have been where Bret Easton Ellis's protagonists went to school.
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