In Afterschool, a disquieting, remarkably controlled first feature by 25-year-old writer-director Antonio Campos, young people live their lives at a shallow focal distance—roughly the foot between their nose and the computer monitor in front of them. From here, Campos’ hero, a baby-faced boarding-school freshman played by Ezra Miller, consumes a steady diet of YouTube clips (from giggling babies and piano-playing cats to bloody brawls and Iraq footage) and live feeds from nastycumholes.com. Campos frequently trains his telephoto lens on Miller in extreme close-up, with the rest of the world out of focus, which puts this confused young man in a profoundly lonely, alienating place. And the dynamics of high school don’t help: Social hierarchies are heavily enforced at his elite East Coast school, and being a shy, insecure first-year student only serves to drive Miller deeper into his murky headspace.
Owing debts to early Atom Egoyan, Frederick Wiseman’s High School (Campos names a character “Mr. Wiseman”), Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and Michael Haneke (especially Benny’s Video), Afterschool wears its many influences on its sleeve, but it’s very much a movie of the moment. The passing of time and the evolution of technology may give it an expiration date, but more likely, Campos’ film stands to be an essential document of what it was like to be a young person in the late ’00s. A frighteningly opaque vessel of teenage amorality, Miller would stay in his dorm-room forever, were he not obligated to participate in an after-school program. Since he isn’t sporting type, he involves himself in a video-production club, and gets assigned to take B-roll footage around campus. While filming a stairwell, Miller catches footage of twin girls’ shocking deaths from tainted drugs.
The aftermath of the tragedy leads Miller to some disturbing places, not least the questionable assignment to make a memorial video for two girls he never really knew—and who almost certainly wouldn’t have given him the time of day. Between the video clips, the overlapping dialogue effects, the odd framing, and the alternating gambits of suffocating close-ups and surveillance-cam pans, Afterschool has been aestheticized within an inch of its life. But it’s also a rigorously thought-through, precocious first effort that finds Campos using every cinematic means at his disposal to suggest the vacant conscience of a kid who experiences the world in bite-sized fragments.