What would a psychiatrist prescribe to director Antonio Campos for framing the world like Gus Van Sant and wagging his finger at us like Michael Haneke? At a posh boarding school within driving distance of the Upper West and East sides of Manhattan, Campos attempts to explore how a teenage boy’s multimedia absorption comes to a head when he accidentally films twin girls overdosing on a mix of narcotics and rat poison, doing ostensibly nothing to save them. The film begins promisingly with a montage of viral video upchuck—adorable newborn giggling up a storm, cat playing piano, Saddam Hussein getting noosed, girl being choked by a fucktard videographer over at nastycumholes.com—that expresses the varying degrees of “pornography” many of us happily gorge on daily. It’s enough to make a virginal post-racial dude go on a killing spree. But this ain’t Elephant, even if it looks like one.
Campos locks his main character into a cliché disaffected routine, biting Van Sant’s recent style even though he isn’t going for existential effect, and as such the film’s space-head aesthetic is almost unfitting to a story with an actual plot: Robert (Ezra Miller) joins the new-to-the-curriculum AV club, fucks around with his hottie partner, Amy (Addison Timlin), choking her just like that nastycumholes.com chick he likes so much (it’s amazing what kids pick up on these days—and so quickly too!), and accidentally films the twins’ overdose before being enlisted to make a remembrance video by the school principal. The actors are strikingly framed, often shown only from the waist down, if at all; artful, yes, but strange for a film fixated with the secret lives of YouTubers—as opposed to say, connoisseurs of Hungarian cinema (even Robert shoots as if his major point of influence was Werckmeister Harmonies).
Like Robert, Campos appears to have a lot to say but struggles to do so, often settling for patness. Robert’s clumsily edited but sincere memoriam video is met with scorn by his principal, who has the video reedited into sentimental hogwash that omits the palpable sense of pain and confusion felt by the boy’s interviewees. These scenes strike a nerve, bitingly acknowledging the way adults ignore the frayed emotions of the young for fear of having to take blame for them, but couple this with a conversation Robert has with his hilariously defensive mother that suggests the influence of Larry Clark and scenes showing students lining up for meds outside the nurse’s office (in the first, Robert’s just visiting; in the second, he’s already part of the fray) and you wonder if this is all Campos is after: conveying in Van Santian terms how the YouTube generation is indoctrinated into the Prozac Nation.
Campos operates in two equally pretentious modes: the one that necessitates abstracting recognizable human emotion, letting the film coast on wonky aesthetic vibes (like another borderline con artist, Lucrecia Martel, he often confuses ambiguity for depth), and the one that requires repeatedly underlining his salient point about media saturation and the sense of mendacity it perpetuates with Hanekeian admonishment. Unsure how to end the film, Campos settles for more than one capper, offering an infinitely more condescending version of Caché’s final shot—one in which we’re asked to simultaneously feel guilty for watching the image and acknowledge that we ourselves are the architects of Robert’s preciously filmed turmoil.