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A Few Key Performances Can't Save Disastrous Post-9/11 Melodrama 'After'
The first 20 minutes of the bleak family drama After are difficult to watch—and not because of an excess of violence, gore or heart-tugging scenes. Under the direction of Pieter Gasperz, with a script by writer-actor Sabrina Gennarino, the acting and dialogue are theatrical and unconvincing (aka "Can't you see we're acting here?!") Save for a few moments, subtlety is lost. It's a shame because actors like Orange Is the New Black's Pablo Schreiber and Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13) deserve a better film than this.
Set in the winter of 2002 in upstate New York, the Valentino family has all the requisite characters found in a dysfunctional film family: Quinlan plays the emotionally unbalanced matriarch Nora; John Doman (The Wire) is the hardass father; Schreiber is the responsible son trying to keep the failing family masonry business together; screenwriter Gennarino plays the eldest daughter Maxine, involved in an interracial relationship with Darrin Dewitt Henson (Soul Food); Adam Scarimbolo plays the family artist/rebel/black sheep; and finally, Alexi Maggio plays the youngest daughter Samantha, trying to make it big in New York City. Samantha communicates with her family by mailing them VHS tapes, a bizarrely dumb conceit even allowing for lack of Skype or Gchat in 2002.
Also living among the Valentino household is boozy Aunt Kat (Diane Neal), Nora's sister, who can't hold a job. Rather than intervening with her alcoholism; the family casually instructs each other to make sure that Kat doesn't drink. Maxine doesn't help the situation either by giving her aunt a job at her bar.
Kat's alcoholism aside, the real story comes in the form of a secret that the family is trying to keep from Nora. She's mentally unstable, demonstrated early on when she nearly falls apart after stepping on a flower in her garden. The direction and camera work is so dramatic in this scene that, for a split second, we thought she either found a dead body or killed an animal. Either one would have made this hammy scene more bearable.
Within the first 20-30 minutes, most audience members will catch onto the intricate ruse the family is keeping up in order to protect Nora. The plot device had promise, but not enough to sustain the entire film. It's too bad, though, that Nora doesn't catch on to the secret until the very end. Gasperz then quickly recaps what happened in a series of stagy, dramatic cuts and flashbacks. The coda, a silent scene between Quinlan and Schreiber is melodramatic, but fitting, considering the rest of the film's tone. Quinlan and Schreiber are the two cast members who try and elevate the weak script and direction, stretching outside of their characters' one-dimensionality to bring real emotion to the screen.
Gennarino's story and script are drawn from real-life experiences. We know all too well about family members not communicating with each other, dancing around real issues, and doing strange things in the wake of tragedy, so we don't need a film like After to tell us what we already know in such an uninspiring way.
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