Best described as a ‘Haneke film that is not by Haneke,’ “Afterschool’ is just good enough to make you respect the filmmaker while wishing he would adopt a style of his own. Mostly though, it makes you think that director Antonio Campos has seen “Cache” and Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” way too many times, and has tried to copy their approach with middling results (although “Afterschool” is less boring and better acted than Van Sant’s supposed classic, he doesn’t hold a candle to Haneke at his best.)
In a world of prep school jerks and uncaring adults, disaffected Robert (Ezra Miller) is just trying to stay afloat while dealing with violent tendencies and teen libido- we first meet him wanking to a particularly exploitive porn video. It’s hard to feel partial to him after that. His mom is overly preoccupied with him being ‘okay’ (not applicable for medication or an extra minute of her time) and not in the least concerned with him being happy. In his fancy-schmancy boarding school, he simply floats through life- barely regarded by his group of friends, engaging in schoolwork he could care less about- he is dulled. deadened, and perhaps worst of all, bored.
Robert has a preference (I hesitate to say ‘passion’) for videos of all kinds- from laughing babies and jokester cats to videotaped schoolyard fights and amateur pornography. He is a symbol of our short attention-spanned, gratified-at-the-click-of-a-button society. Seeing these clips, the footage of giggling children seems equally as ‘wrong’ and voyeuristic as the more hardcore videos. They are rendered eerie and uncanny by the context of the movie. When two young girls (Mary and Carly Michelson) OD while Robert films, he is sucked into a fallout among the students and staff- but with how much is Robert complicit?
You won’t necessarily find the answer within this film, but “Afterschool” does prove to be an interesting (if well-worn by more established directors) experiment. Known for his roles in films such as “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of being a Wallflower, then- barely pubescent Ezra Miller is eerily apathetic and effective here. While I’d argue that the last shot was a example of breaking the fourth wall (Robert is ‘filmed’ by the complacent audience,) there’s enough of a mystery element to the conclusion to keep the viewer thinking if they wish.
However, “Afterschool”‘s preoccupation with being deliberately obtuse makes it quite a frustrating experience, and the social commentary is a little obvious for this kind of film. It’s showy in the way of “Funny Games” (Haneke’s weakest film)- they’re pushing the bumbling incompetence of adults, the apathy of our kids, and the brokenness of our society in our faces. In the end I didn’t care too much whether Robert killed the girls or whether his friend Dave (Jeremy Allen White) was to blame- I didn’t long for it to be over, but I wasn’t exactly sucked in by it either.
Ultimately, while Campos’ cold, calculating cinematic method and long, still shots of nothing happening at all might appeal to Haneke fanboys, I found it to be too derivative of that filmmaker to be anything of consequence. It’s okay- but movie like this (art, not entertainment) can’t be just okay- it really has to pull you in, making its world yours. If anything, this movie will just make you develop a further distaste for entitled rich kids and the preppy mischief they make.