The 24-year-old Campos has been winning prizes for his short films for the past eight years; started film-making at thirteen and completed his first short film at seventeen; has been a Presidential Scholar; and wrote the script for this film at the Cannes Residence in Paris in fall 2006. It premiered at the 2008 Cannes Un Certain Regard series. Campos, who was a scholarship student at an exclusive international school himself and then went to study film at NYU, has been rejected from many festivals, but Cannes has led him to the NYFF. He has a group of friends and associates from NYU, and has founded Borderline Films. (See the interview "Filmstock: Antonio Campos 'After School'" on PlumTV.)
'Afterschool,' which speaks of a boy and girl in a fancy East Coas prep school video club, of the boy's roommate, and the death of twin Alpha Girl classmates, is a film of and about the YouTube generation. It begins with Rob (Ezra Miller) watching an online porn site called "Nasty Cum Holes" (or something like that) in which a man, unseen, is talking dirty to a young prostitute. Rob is in his dorm room, which he shares with Dave (Jeremy Allen White), who deals drugs. The video club links him with Amy (Addison Timlin), with whom he loses his virginity. While ostensibly making a sort of promotional video for the school he is shooting a hallway and stairway and all of a sudden two twin girls, the most admired in the school as it happens, appear overdosing. Robert rushes down the hall to them and the camera continues to watch as he sits on the floor with them as they die. Links between all this and Michael Haneke's 'Caché' and Van Sant's 'Elephant' are almost too obvious to mention.
In what follows there is a lot that shows the hypocrisy and confusion of the teachers, the headmaster, and the kids. Rob is so full of emotion throughout the entire film that he finds himself almost completely shut down. Mr. Wiseman the therapist or counselor (Lee Wilkof) succeeds in getting him to open up a tiny bit by trading obscene insults with him. (Campos' admiration for Frederick Wiseman's 'High School' led him to pay homage with the character's name.) A lot of 'Afterschool' is seen either as a video camera (or even a cell phone camera) see it, or as Rob sees it. When his lit teacher is talking about 'Hamlet,' he is watching her crotch, legs, and cleavage and that's what the camera sees. At other times the camera is fixed and one speaker is cut out of the picture, or you see only the edge of his head. Campos is not of the shaky, hand-held school of realism. His evocation of the sensibility of his young characters goes deeper than that. When kids today see something like a girlfight (or a boyfight) at school, somebody films it, and when it's filmed it's going to wind up on the Internet. There's a girlfight Rob and his roommate watch on the Web and then they're in a boyfight with each other in which Rob lets out his sudden pent up anger. Maybe his roommate is guilty in the twin girls' death. But as the school headmaster somewhat facilely says, maybe they all are. A wave of repression follows the incident--perhaps evoking the aftermath of 9/11, which Campos interchanged with the girls' death to get kids' reaction shots.
Campos likes moments that make us and himself uncomfortable, starting with the opening porn video, but continuing with Rob's experience and the world seen through his eyes. (Campos made a short film in which a young girl sells her virginity on eBay and loses it for real on camera to an older man.) Rob's safety is continually compromised and his emotions are uncertain. He doesn't know who he is, and neither does the filmmaker. Rob is a cleancut, even beautiful, boy, but he is almost clinically shut down--not an unusual state for a male teenager, maybe even more likely in a privileged setting like a New England prep school.
Rob and Amy are assigned the task of making a 'memorial film' about the dead twins. However the film he makes is too abstract, existential, ironic and just plain crude to be acceptable. When his supervisor sees it he thinks it's meant to be a mean joke. Later a more sweetened up and conventional version of the film is shown to the whole school, which we also see. Altering and re-editing reality is a continual theme of 'Afterschool.' As Deborah Young of 'Hollywood Reporter' writes, 'Afterschool' "is a sophisticated stylistic exercise too rarefied for wide audiences, but earmarked for critical kudos." It may seem in the watching more crude than it is. The cobbled-together vernacular images are clumsy, but the filmmaker is supple, deft, and sophisticated technically and bold intellectually--still-beyond his years. He has also captured a world he himself knows personally with rather stunning accuracy.
(Note: I am not sure of all the characters' names and may have got some identifications wrong here.)