While it’s not a straight-up horror movie per se, Afterschool is about 15-year-olds who are addicted to violent porn, have bloody overdoses and may even murder one another within the halls of a chichi Northeastern prep school. So while there may not be some silly talking puppet trapping people in cages or a guy with a mask stalking the students between classes, it’s about as horrific a story as you can imagine.
The real question: Horror or no, is it any good?
Yes and no. I’ll admit I tend to have a soft spot for self-consciously “disturbing” movies that actually succeed in making me uncomfortable, regardless of the genre (i.e., Audition, Funny Games, Kids, Less Than Zero, Kissed, Elephant, The Idiots, Baby’s Day Out). And on the one hand, Afterschool is certainly a hard watch in spots because strikes raw nerve.
Unfortunately, it’s a hard watch in other spots because of its over-investment in its own artsiness, which is more often than not a recipe for a tedious watch.
Robert (Ezra Miller) is a bland but inoffensive sophomore at a tony prep school where he does well in his classes but spends most of his time watching violent clips on Youtube and jacking off to sadistic amateur porn (the first five minutes, which consist entirely of his viewing material, comprise the most unsettling part of the film).
After he gets involved in the A/V group to make a documentary about the school, Robert happens to film the violent death of two twin girls who have taken bad drugs. Rather than help them, Robert films them … and for some reason the school then thinks it would be rehabilitative for him to shoot a memorial video about the girls.
Surprise surprise, it’s not exactly the group hug that Robert needed.
Afterschool dives headfirst into the worst aspects of adolescence, and it touches on some very real themes that most teen-based films (American films, anyway) wouldn’t come near (learned violent behavior, sexual aggression, abject cruelty, etc.). And while much of the film’s finger-shaking is pointed in the direction of the administration (who clearly haven’t the slightest interest in the kids’ protection and may have caused the shocking events to transpire in the first place), the bulk of the blame is placed on the shoulders of a virtually unreadable, spoiled teen.
Morally vacant rich kids can make perfectly compelling central characters, as Bret Easton Ellis‘s bank account can attest. (And at least in his stories, the kids have a bit of style. Is that so much to ask?) But when the pool of central characters are uniformly cold, impenetrable and hollow, it’s very difficult to get engaged.
Complicating matters further is writer/director Anthony Campos‘s decision to misframe virtually every actor and every scene, likely in an attempt to evoke the “real” quality of Robert’s fetish material. But honestly, after about an hour of looking at the tops of awful people’s heads it becomes more frustrating than intriguing.
I will give Afterschool due credit for tackling such unpleasant subject matter head-on and for managing to make prep school seem like pretty much the most hellish place on the planet. Beyond that, though, it’s a hard film to recommend. Sure, the image of a young amateur porn actress being throttled in a close-up unnerved me, but a simple Google search would likely yield hundreds of similar clips. While the horror that these materials are so available to our young people today is truly terrifying, within the askew framing of Afterschool it’s an incomplete thought not unlike the directionless rage of the movie’s antihero.
In the end, Afterschool sets out to shock, and in this it scores a passing grade – but in terms of being a successful cautionary tale about today’s youth, it could use some extra credit.
RATING (OUT OF 5):
Afterschool opens in limited release on Friday, October 2nd and is available in some markets via IFC On Demand.