Arguably the best thing about “After Class,” a purposely untidy and exceptionally intelligent dramedy about frayed family ties and academic contretemps, is writer-director Daniel Schechter’s refusal to ever let his protagonist off too easy. To be sure, lead player Justin Long’s graceless-under-pressure Josh Cohn comes across as more clueless than unsympathetic, less chronically selfish than fecklessly self-absorbed, as he muddles through seismic upheavals in his private and professional lives. But those failings are more than enough to keep viewers from remaining firmly and inflexibly affixed in his corner at all times. And that works very much in the movie’s favor.
Josh is introduced as a 38-year-old adjunct professor of creative writing at an unnamed New York City university. It’s gradually revealed that he’s relatively new to the job, and probably accepted it, gratefully, only because his playwriting career is stalled. But when those beans actually are spilled, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise: He’s a little too eager to ingratiate himself to his students, a bit too insistent on advising a shy young woman in his class to be “honest” about a disastrous date she fictionalizes in a short story — and way, way too oblivious to the possibility that, by cajoling the student into describing a sexual humiliation, much like a demanding director or acting coach might browbeat an actor into conjuring up sense memory, he might be asking for trouble. Big trouble.
Josh is genuinely surprised, and immediately defensive, when he’s called in to meet with a sympathetic dean and her markedly less sympathetic male associate to explain why, through his inappropriate questioning of his student, he “triggered” at least one of her classmates, a survivor of sexual assault, and likely upset others who were present. This incident proves to be the dislodged pebble that causes a landslide — but, for a dangerously long period, Josh is too distracted by more pressing personal concerns to fully appreciate his precarious position.
Schechter balances — neatly, but never too obviously — Josh’s on-campus problems with his many, varied and often argumentative interactions with his extended Jewish family. For starters, he’s deeply concerned that his beloved aged grandmother (Lynn Cohen) likely won’t live past her current hospital stay. At the same time, he’s seriously discombobulated because Diane (Fran Dresher), his mother, doesn’t want to wait until her mother is dead before parceling out the old lady’s belongings.
Jackie (Kate Berlant), Josh’s aggressively uninhibited sister, more or less moves into his apartment to record her podcasts, dally with a new lover, and frequent grouse about their father (Richard Schiff), who divorced their mother, married an age-inappropriate woman, and now seems less than enthusiastic about spending time with them and David (Michael Godere), their straight-arrow brother. She doesn’t do Josh any favors when, in the movie’s most discomforting and emotionally raw scene, she stands up for her brother during an unexpected encounter with the students who are, rightly or wrongly, most adamantly opposed to him.
But wait, there’s more: Catterina (Silvia Morigi), Josh’s Italian live-in girlfriend, is into rough sex — though not as much as Josh. He would be happier, he says, if they’d cuddle more, “and not hit each other so much.” The look she gives him when he expresses this wish tells us all we need to know about how long their relationship will last.
Throughout “After Class,” it’s easy to discern more than a few echoes of “Oleanna,” David Mamet’s still-controversial play and subsequent film about a college professor who cannot (or will not) accept that his words and actions could easily be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as patriarchal condescension at best, sexual harassment at worst. Indeed, Schechter actually goes one step further onto the minefield by offering Josh an opportunity to even the odds against him through an alliance with straight white male students who feel victimized because — well, because they are straight white males. Josh turns down the offer but, again, Schechter and Long avoid the easy way out: We’re left wondering whether Josh refuses because it’s the right thing to do, or because (as his later threats of legal action suggest) he figures such an alliance would hurt, not help, his case.
Arguably the second-best thing about “After Class” — well, OK, the third-best, right behind the wall-to-wall pitch-perfect performances — is Schechter’s cheeky upending of expectations. For example: At one point, it looks like he’s planting some kind of disruptive emotional pay-off when two characters are left alone by their significant others. At another point, one character asks another to temporarily hold on to a stash of cocaine. In each instance, many viewers will suspect that they’re being set up for a basic Scriptwriting 101 action-bred consequence. And yet, nothing comes of either set-up.
Time and again during “After Class,” Schechter makes pinpoint-accurate choices that are even more impressive when, after it’s done, you replay the movie in your mind, and you realize what an exceptional piece of work it is. To repeat: Josh is never let off easy. Repeatedly, he makes the wrong move, says the wrong thing — and is surprised when other people take it the wrong way. It says a great deal about the acting skill and industrial-strength charisma of Justin Long that, when Josh’s dear grandmother states she is tired of living and yearns to join her husband in heaven, he can get away with Josh responding by mock-seriously threatening to put her out of her misery. Josh is stunned when someone else takes him seriously, even though, all things considered, he shouldn’t be.
Ultimately, “After Class” — which premiered last fall under the title “Safe Spaces” at the Tribeca Film Festival — pivots on whether the adjunct professor will ever realize how much has yet to learn. And before you ask: Yes, some of the “offended” students are depicted as politically correct bullies. But not all of them.