Disclaimer: the film discussed in the following review contains themes regarding sexual assault and difficult family dynamics that some readers or viewers may find distressing.
Despite its often enjoyable and touching moments, After Class is a film that struggles with what it wants to be. A family drama, a think piece about cancel culture or a character study? Instead it’s a bit of all three, yet only properly succeeds in about one (and a half, at a push) of these areas. There are some minor plot spoilers ahead – though nothing you couldn’t see coming.
The basic premise is that Josh Cohn (Justin Long), a newbie professor, faces backlash after he was accidentally insensitive in class not realising that he’d triggered a sexual assault survivor. An issue that in all honesty could have been easily resolved if Josh had enough self-awareness to apologise and if the university had actually sat down with both sides and simply listened. But, of course, if the characters had been rational then we’d have no movie.
Instead, Josh refuses to acknowledge any and all responsibility whilst the university is so keen to chastise Josh, they don’t take the time to turn this into a learning moment until it’s too late. On top of an already quite serious and personal premise, the audience has to get their heads around the deeply complex Cohn family dynamic which features divorce, a grandma on her death bed, daddy issues, evil step-mums, annoying aunts, chaotic sisters and much more. Not even mentioning the relationship Josh has with his early 20s Italian girlfriend who seems pretty ambivalent towards him.
The film was undoubtably stronger in its familial storylines. The dynamic of the Cohns, whilst incessantly shouty at times, felt real and for that I applaud the film. Justin Long is hugely believable as Josh and the casting of Fran Drescher as his stressed out mother Diane was perfection. Whilst, the late and great Lynn Cohen gave a touching performance as the family’s loveable matriarch, grandma Agatha, in one of her last performances before her passing in early 2020.
In such a short run time, the film manages to paint a complex family dynamic incredibly well with certain scenes towards the end – the hospital scenes especially – bringing a tear to my eye.
Yet, it’s in the classroom storyline where the film falters. The audience is left unsure of who to empathise with for far too long.
From Josh’s perspective, he didn’t intend to trigger anyone therefore he did nothing wrong and the student’s upset about it is just a widespread overreaction. Though, his opinion isn’t helped by the fact he at one point he distastefully questions whether or not he would be criticised if he were someone else.
Thankfully, Josh’s father Jeff (Richard Schiff) quickly shuts this line of thought down – albeit more so about how they can’t afford to sue the school rather than, you know, … morals.
This is After Class’s main issue. Its protagonist is so insensitive and self-involved that he morally grates the audience. It isn’t until the very end, when Jennifer has to spell it out to Josh, that he shows a shred of understanding to where he was insensitive. Until then, he’s the protagonist and the students in solidarity with Jennifer are painted as an inconvenience. But our ‘hero’ is so cluelessly and selfishly antagonistic for so long that it’s hard to believe he has learnt from this.
After all, it only took almost every part of his life nearly or entirely falling apart for him to finally internally reflect. Which begs the question, what will it take for him to apologise the next time he makes someone feel unsafe because it’s pretty clear there will be a next time, even if entirely unintended.
Perhaps I’m being too negative. The film is wonderfully well acted, quite funny at times – the pillow suffocation gag got me – is deeply believable and brings important issues to the forefront of the audience’s mind but I can’t help but think it could have managed its issues with more grace and less confusion. Although, maybe, I should have seen that coming as its name was changed from Safe Spaces to After Class mirroring the undecided narrative centre.
Quite simply, this film can’t decide if it’s about After Class and the family dynamic or about Safe Spaces and the complexity of manoeuvring sensitive topics amongst young people. Even still, I did enjoy the film especially for its anchoring within reality. I know this would and does happen in real life which immediately made it a much more fascinating watch. I just wish we’d seen a wider view than just the perspective of Josh.
Also, who doesn’t want to watch Fran Drescher tell me if a red leather chair is masculine or not. She was great in this. Wholly believable.
After Class will be available on digital download from December 7.