On DVD: The Best High School Movie You Haven't Seen
A big festival hit but otherwise a brash indie too grim and severe to really break out in theaters, Antonio Campos's Afterschool is one of the best movies ever made about high school -- that is, it nails the experience to the wall with a gutter spike. I'm not talking about the fun but fantastical high school movies you're thinking of, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but the movies that capture the lostness, the social combat, and the pubertal angst, movies like Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Lindsay Anderson's If..., Shunji Iwai's All about Lily Chou-Chou, and Tim Hunter's River's Edge. (I'd throw in Park Ki-hyeong's moody K-horror epic Ghost School Trilogy and Frederick Wiseman's High School, but maybe that's enough adolescent hallway dread already.)
Campos's movie is a formidably controlled, brilliant, scary piece of work, an unmistakable art film -- and he made it when he was 24. His style is sleek and cool, yet the movie is often shot and framed off-center, as if the camera were just rolling without the actor's knowledge. Every wide-screen shot suggests a mystery, a secret story. In fact, the mumbling, introverted protagonist, Robert (Ezra Miller), mitigates his loneliness and awkwardness by joining his New England prep school's AV club, and the film is liberally punctuated with footage he shoots, climaxing with an innocuous study of an empty hallway that, after a while, accidentally captures two blonde twin students screaming and hemorrhaging after doing some badly cut coke.
The tension ramps up at the very beginning - we're watching, with an unseen Robert, YouTube clips ranging from laughing babies to Saddam Hussein's hanging, and eventually land on a porn site defined by strangulated humiliation and brutality. ("Smells like cum in here," one of Robert's roommates say when they bust in.) From there, Campos's view of this over-nurtured environment is openly hostile - the boys are mostly sullen s**theels, the girls are victims waiting for their fate, the teachers are blathering moralizers. (Michael Stuhlbarg, of the Coens' A Serious Man, masterfully plays the principal.) But there's not a stereotype in sight, as Robert negotiates a crush on a co-ed and, after the twins' death, takes on the task of making a memorial video. We've all seen high school movies that bear no substantial resemblance to human life as we know it, but this movie is grade-A conviction, and you'll recognize the rhythms, fears and cruelties as if they were your own, even if you didn't attend a posh boarding school that holds morning assembly in a Gothic cathedral.
You have to keep your eyes and ears open -- Campos sidles in a mystery in the vein of Blow-Up and Cache -- as Robert and his friends discover a different recording of the twins' death from a different angle, suggesting all kinds of hidden plots and motivations. What's more, the death of the twins is eventually eulogized (by the administration, not Robert) with a declaration to "Never Forget!" Is an echo of 9/11 qualm just youthful pretension on Campos's part? Maybe, but I'm always happy when young filmmakers swing for the cheap seats, come hell or high water. Afterschool quite clearly shows the active influence of Michael Haneke (as does Campos's short, The Last 15, included on the DVD), and if the end product is sophomore Haneke, that still makes it more interesting and eloquent than 90% of American indies. Maybe the penultimate revelation Campos gives us is a touch sensational, but the following climactic moments, hinting at sociopathic urges haunting the stacks and halls like radio waves, are breathtakers.