Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin both have new movies coming out, so we’re looking back on other projects released by their production company, Borderline Films.
Major cultural shifts generally take a while to start showing up in movies, simply because making any movie tends to take a ridiculously long time. So it’s remarkable that the quintessential YouTube movie appeared in 2008, just a little over two years after the site officially launched (on December 15, 2005). Afterschool opens with a series of low-res viral clips—everything from a baby laughing and a cat plunking piano keys to actual footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution—being watched by a high-school kid named Robert (Ezra Miller, in his big-screen debut). And we need to talk about Robert, who’s learning to process the world in decontextualized minute-long snippets. This affects his burgeoning romantic relationship with Amy (Addison Timlin), whom he perceives through the heavily distorted lens of online porn; it also leaves him uncertain about how to react when the camera he’s using to shoot B-roll for a video-studies project accidentally captures two young women dying from what turns out to be poisoned drugs. What kind of man is Robert becoming, thanks to this brave new world? And what kind of society are we now building?
With Afterschool—his feature debut, incredibly—writer-director Antonio Campos (Simon Killer, Christine) proved to be well ahead of the curve regarding such questions. While it would be overreaching to say that the film anticipated, say, QAnon, Robert’s flailing captures in excruciating detail the extent to which time spent online leaves people at once starved for authenticity and dedicated to pretense. What’s more, Campos does so with a formal control and ingenuity that’s little short of breathtaking, especially for a neophyte. Switching deftly back and forth between panoramic, widescreen celluloid and cramped, windowboxed consumer video, Afterschool deliberately blurs the line between the two: Not only are the “objective” shots brilliantly artless, forever trained on the wrong spot or cutting someone in half at the edge of the frame, but much of the video imagery—particularly Rob’s A/V project, which abruptly turns from mundane establishing shots into something so horrifying it can barely be processed, much less resolved—evinces the chilly neutrality of Michael Haneke or Christoph Hochhäusler. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who’d go on to shoot everything from Trainwreck to Manchester By The Sea, works expressionistic miracles via the tonal contrast between foreground clarity and backgrounds so magnificently blurred that they resemble lost Monets. Small wonder the film was invited to play in the official selection at Cannes—an honor rarely accorded to 24-year-old American directors.
For all its undeniable formal mastery, though, Afterschool’s greatness lies primarily in the forthright way that it tackles the 21st century’s most important subject: mediation. It was the first movie that seemed to register just how drastically certain aspects of American society had changed within the span of a few years, constructing a portrait of Generation YouTube (one appropriately set in high school, but encompassing all ages) that’s somehow both compassionate and merciless—which is to say, utterly true. Key moments in the characters’ lives wind up scrutinized on the internet hours later; they find “alternate takes” of events they themselves recorded, captured by persons unknown with ethical imperatives unrecognized. Even minor details cut clean: When Robert calls his mother to tell her he’s not fitting in at school (it’s a private academy with dorms), her response is so credibly concerned-yet-destructive that it’s easy to understand why he keeps turning to online strangers for guidance. Sorrowfully observing the quest for something real in a terrain of orchestrated lies, Afterschool never once flinches. Even more so today than at the time it was made, a dozen years ago, this is how we live.