Sensitivities collide in Daniel Schechter’s After Class, whose original title, Safe Spaces, should give you an idea what kind of troubles its lead character — an adjunct college professor played by Justin Long — copes with here. But restrictive campus mores are only part of the picture in a film full of walk-on-eggshells family drama and uncertain amorous dynamics. As in Schechter’s previous movies, an unusually strong cast is key to making this touchy material work, with supporting players Lynn Cohen and Richard Schiff especially crucial.
Long’s Josh Cohn teaches creative writing. He’s the kind of tender-hearted guy who, when dating a sexy Italian (Silvia Morigi) who likes to slap and be slapped in bed, will make the case for adding a little sweetness to the mix. He’s earnest in class as well, trying to connect with students whose thoughts and words are subject to constant policing by peers. In a discussion of one woman’s short story, he susses out what feels dishonest and asks probing questions. It’s a conversation that appears to have gone over well, illuminating fiction-writing truisms like “write what hurts” and “embarrass yourself”; it isn’t until days later that he learns one of his students “felt unsafe in your classroom” that day. Seeing nothing he should apologize for, Josh soon finds his job is in jeopardy.
More nuanced and affecting than its hot-button synopsis suggests.
At the same time, the family member he loves most — his grandmother Agatha, played by Cohen — is in the hospital. She’s probably dying, but Josh can’t see that; he’s tormented when his mother Diane (Fran Drescher) asks for help at Grandma’s apartment and starts dividing up her possessions. He’d rather be at the hospital enjoying the still-living woman’s wit — bickering with his sister and brother, making sure there’s always someone to keep Agatha company.
Scattered grudges make the family responsibilities tough to coordinate. Especially problematic is Josh’s father Jeff (Schiff), who divorced Diane and now lives with a new wife whose hyper-possessiveness forces him to distance himself from his old family. As real as situations like this are in the world, Schechter’s depiction of the woman as a one-dimensional shrew is a storytelling weak spot, but Schiff’s air of heartbroken resignation is persuasive enough to make the situation believably tragic.
The Cohns are a prickly bunch, and can be hard to take, yet Schechter (inspired to some extent by his own family) observes them with a contagious affection. There’s warmth even in contentious scenes, and the family material might have overwhelmed other plotlines if there weren’t some fairly strong thematic ties between them.
Returning throughout to Josh’s worries about his job and his disbelief about the claims being made against him, the screenplay stacks the deck to an extent. For most of the pic, students’ complaints about triggering and the like dovetail perfectly with the way a right-wing radio host might describe the excesses of young snowflakes; then, when it needs to supply Josh with an emotional turning point, the student objections are for the first time presented in ways a person older than 30 might take seriously.
In the course of this micro-scandal, one scene stands out for moral complexity. As Josh’s endangered job becomes the talk of campus, two of his white, male students pull him aside to assure him they’re in his corner. They give every sign of being sensitive, empathetic kids, but being cast as oppressors every day is taking a toll; in their aggrieved dialogue, you can hear the seeds of reactionary passion. To his credit, Josh understands that theirs is help he can do without. Across town, he’s dealing with actual life-and-death problems. Having to apologize for something he doesn’t think was wrong might not be the end of the world.
Production company: Cojo Pictures
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Michael Godere, Lynn Cohen, Fran Drescher, Richard Schiff, Silvia Morigi, Becky Ann Baker, Tyler Wladis
Director-screenwriter-editor: Daniel Schechter
Producers: Courtenay Johnson, Larry Greenberg, Jordan Kessler, Matthew Helderman, Luke Taylor
Director of photography: Gregory Wilson
Production designer: Gino Fortebuono
Costume designer: Lisa Fries
Composer: Aaron Esposito
Casting director: Bess Fifer