Afterschool, the almost frighteningly accomplished first feature made by Antonio Campos when he was 24, is high school as horror show. The premise isn’t novel, but the movie, which was featured in the 2008 New York Film Festival, gives teenage sex and death a disquieting high art sheen. A key shot has the kids at a posh New England academy lining up for their daily meds at the far end of a perfectly framed fluorescent corridor.
A new student at this blandly sinister institution, populated by privileged preppies and the duplicitous teachers who are their employees, confused introvert Rob (Ezra Miller) largely lives (and gets his behavioral cues) online. An opening montage of YouTube attractions—a happy baby, a violent accident, Saddam Hussein’s final moments, a piano-playing cat, war—segues to his preferred hardcore website. Rob is not only an inchoate cinephile, but a nascent filmmaker who joins the school video club (faculty adviser Mr. Wiseman named for documentarian Fred), mainly to get next to attractive freshman Amy (Addison Timlin). In the course of Rob’s documenting, twin sisters—the school’s popular seniors—lurch into an empty stairwell, bleeding and screaming. Having apparently ingested cocaine cut with strychnine, they die on camera even as Rob stumbles to their aid.
Of course, nothing recorded is without ambiguity. Shades of Blow-up or Michael Haneke’s Caché abound—Campos screened the latter for his cast and crew, as well as cell phone images of 9/11 victims jumping from the Twin Towers. As the school goes into mourning for its twins, Rob is assigned to produce the memorial video—his alienation compounded by perfunctory sex with Amy (accompanied by an ominous drone) and her subsequent involvement with his sleepy-eyed, drug-dealing roommate, whom he suspects might be implicated in the deaths.
Afterschool has been compared to Paranoid Park, but where Gus Van Sant’s high school crime scene is lyrical, impressionistic, and tolerant, Campos’s is cool, precise, and judgmental. (Not for nothing did the filmmaker dedicate his first opus, made at 13 and titled Puberty, to Stanley Kubrick.) The school has as much atmosphere as a bell jar. The movie itself is highly composed—the visual style predicated on fragmenting close-ups, purposefully shallow focus, and studied camera placement, with Campos wielding the edge of the frame as if it were a scalpel.
Otherwise, Afterschool is blunt, if mordantly deadpan, satire. Our affectless antihero isn’t the film’s lone media-programmed zombie. Afterschool‘s unctuous adults are founts of risible TV-learned clichés—most spectacularly in the headmaster’s search to find an appropriate response to the tragedy. In the context of such vacuous official rhetoric, as well as Campos’s hyperfastidious mise-en-scène, Rob’s memorial video arrives as a fabulously inappropriate blast of truth. The most expressive element in the film, the tape is raw and immediate, tastelessly filled with overlong takes and “empty” locations, including the space where the sisters expired. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” the headmaster explodes. “You didn’t even have music!” Neither, for the most part, does Afterschool.