Let us start, for once, at the ending instead of the beginning.
This is an appropriate place to start for a review of the dramedy “After Class,” which, among other things, is predicated on endings: the death of a beloved family matriarch, the dissolution of a career and the numerous mangled corpses of failed romantic and familial relationships.
It’s important, then, to talk about how “After Class” itself ends. There is no fade to black, no sweeping music, no “The End” in huge lettering. It just ends. Director Daniel Schechter cuts to black in the middle of a scene and cues the credits.
So what are we supposed to make of that mess?
This is a question that comes up frequently in “After Class,” an intentionally messy and often quite thoughtful film about messily broken people muddling their way through messily broken situations. Throughout, Schechter trades easy answers for a series of intriguing and difficult questions, and he lets the audience sit with those questions and often laugh uncomfortably at them.
On first glance, “After Class” is a fairly traditional indie dramedy filled with the typical indie dramedy problems. Our protagonist is Josh (Justin Long) a playwright who’s given up his dream for a dead-end adjunct professor job at a community college. But Josh’s family members have their own problems – his dad (the great Richard Schiff) has remarried a much younger woman and is at his wit’s end dealing with both a bratty grade school-aged son and three adult children in various stages of arrested development. Mom (a surprisingly subdued Fran Drescher) is caring for her own cancer-stricken mother (Lynn Cohen) and preparing for the inevitable.
This is, as mentioned, fairly standard stuff, although it is nicely elevated by the gentle understated performances of the cast. If the dialogue (also by Schechter) is sitcom-level, the characters feel so lived-in and nuanced that the script’s flaws can be easily forgiven.
Long and Cohen, especially, are just lovely in this and have a sweet heartfelt chemistry with each other. They also share some of the film’s biggest -and most uncomfortable- laughs such as when it seems like Josh may be willing to mercy-kill his grandma by smothering her with a pillow.
Kate Berlant (as Josh’s sister), Drescher and Schiff are also quite good in a cast that rarely strikes a wrong note.
The familial struggles, which make up the bulk of “After Class,” would be enough to earn it a recommendation. But it’s in the film’s subplot that Schecter really goes above and beyond in his search for cringe comedy and thoughtful provocations.
Josh, as mentioned, teaches a creative writing class at a community college. During the discussion of a student’s true-life sexual encounter that inspired a piece of writing, Josh goes a bit too far and presses for information that nobody really wants to know.
The next day he gets a call from the dean (the great Becky Ann Banker) who informs him that a student no longer feels safe in his class. The student, a survivor of sexual assault, felt “triggered” by the discussion and Josh’s handling of it. She will not be coming back.
Josh’s conversations with the dean start out with “You’re new here” and veer into “Some of these students can be sensitive.” And it’s all downhill from there as Josh’s career self-destructs.
So again I ask: What are we to make of this mess? Is Josh the hero of this story or the villain? Is he the victim or the predator?
In answering these questions, Schechter remembers something that my newspaper editor tells us on occasion: “It is possible to hold more than one idea in your head at the same time.” It is OK to both root for Josh’s self-improvement and to find him infuriatingly insensitive and privileged. It is OK to feel for the triggered student but also wish that she would accept an olive branch from Josh and move forward in forgiveness. It’s OK to be a little angry at how a single student ends a man’s career and also be more than a little uncomfortable when a couple of students try to make Josh the face of their “white male lives matter” movement.
Schechter wisely embraces all these contradictions and others – “After Class” (not rated, but with very R-rated language and sexual content) is both comedy and tragedy, and that’s OK. Because so is life.
“After Class” is a withering, brutal, uncomfortable and often laugh-out-loud hilarious film. Schechter takes an early line from Josh – “write what hurts”- and makes it his film’s thesis. Not everybody will embrace the film, but I think many people will find value in the challenging, morally ambiguous questions it asks.
There’s value in these questions, and I think that’s what the film’s ending means. Life is not neat or tidy- sometimes things just end for no reason, and we’re left to figure it out for ourselves and to find meaning in it.
So what are we supposed to make of this mess – of this life? Maybe we aren’t supposed to make anything of it – maybe we’re just supposed to muddle through. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we can find beauty and humor and joy in the muddling and the pain. Schechter sure does.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.