Producers: Courtenay Johnson, Larry Greenberg, Jordan Kessler, Matthew Helderman and Luke Taylor Director: Daniel Schechter Screenplay: Daniel Schechter Cast: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Michael Godere, Lynn Cohen, Fran Drescher, Richard Schiff, Silvia Morigi, Becky Ann Baker, Tyler Wladis and Dana Eskelson Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Josh Cohn (Justin Long), an Adjunct Professor of English at an unnamed college in New York City, juggles professional and personal crises in Daniel Schechter’s dramedy, which has enough truthfulness to make up for a tendency to be loud, simplistic and rather overbearing.
Cohn’s academic career is threatened by a classroom incident that baffles him. During a discussion of a student’s short story about a date, he good-humoredly prods her to be more honest about the sexual encounter it ended with. He thinks it’s been a good session—a lesson in how to use your experience to write better. But the explicit nature of the discussion has nonplussed another student, who goes to the dean with a complaint that her safe space has been violated. Cohn is called on the carpet and encouraged to apologize, though he’s certain he did nothing wrong.
The situation escalates when other students in the class get actively involved. Some boycott the class. One begins to film Cohn with his phone. A seminar meeting turns testy, with two girls accusing him and some of the male students of sexism and racism, and some of the white guys responding that they seem ready to condemn any disagreements or criticism by raising such charges. A couple of them suggest that they’ll become Josh’s protectors, expressing views that could easily take a slippery slope down to right-wing venom.
All of this is happening while Josh is confronted by a family emergency—or series of them. His beloved grandmother Agatha (Lynn Cohen) is hospitalized with cancer, only the latest of her ailments, and may not survive. He’s annoyed that his mother Diane (Fran Drescher) seems to be anticipating Agatha’s demise, already deciding how her property will be parceled out. Meanwhile his free-spirited sister Jackie Kate Berlant), a podcaster, intrudes on his life, badgering him into letting her stay in his apartment, and he’s constantly at loggerheads with his brother David (Michael Godere), a successful Wall Street type, who thinks that Josh is a flake who never takes things seriously.
The family dynamic is further inflamed by the refusal of Jeff (Richard Schiff), Diane’s ex, to come and visit Agatha. He’s forbidden to by his shrilly insecure second wife Sherry (Dana Eskelson), with whom he has a son, Ben (Tyler Wladis), who’s a completely uncontrollable brat.
Josh’s double trouble leads to a great many shouting matches, and much of “After Class” has a frenzied air marked by reams of overlapping dialogue—a technique that is true to life but as aggravating to us as it is to the characters. (At one point David insists that Josh shut up for a minute, which Josh does, timing the ticking off of the seconds on his phone as David makes his spiel.)
Add to that the shrillness of the campus confrontations, in which many of the students are portrayed as utter snowflakes incapable of having a reasonable conversation about anything. And though the two parts of the picture are generally kept separate, in one case Jackie gets involved in the dispute with the students, and of course only makes it worse.
Schechter does quiet things down toward the close, when Josh finally gets the opportunity to listen to his student’s complaint and reflect on why his insensitivity so upset her, and Jeff overrules his shrewish wife to visit Agatha one last time.
Even before that, “After Class” (originally titled “Safe Spaces”) benefits from Long’s likable personality and excellent turns from Drescher, Cohen and Schiff, though Berlant’s intensity would work better in smaller doses, and the one-note performances by Wladis, Eskelson and many of the youngsters playing Josh’s students are often grating. The picture will win no awards for visual beauty, but the technical contributions by cinematographer Gregory J. Wilson and production designer Cassaundra Franklin give it a believably lived-in look. In sum, this is an uneven piece about “trigger issues” in one man’s professional and personal lives, but the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, if only by a slight margin.