Aftersun (Review) – A Real Thinker Of A Movie

DIRECTOR: Charlotte Wells

CAST: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Brooklyn Toulson, Sally Messham, Harry Perdios

RUNNING TIME: 96 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: A father (Mescal) and daughter (Coiro) go on holiday together to Turkey…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

The biggest mistake you can make going into writer-director Charlotte Wells’ debut feature Aftersun is to expect something straightforward. Don’t let the reasonably simple premise fool you into thinking that this is going to be your average slice-of-life drama, for it is a lot more ponderous, vague, and even at times abstract than you may believe it to be from seeing the trailer or any other write-ups. I’ll admit, my immediate thoughts on this movie the moment that it finished were ones of confusion and disconnection, and I boil much of that down to my own expectations. Having heard about the movie through some solid buzz and even better reviews, all of which hyped it up as an emotionally devastating experience, I was anticipating a gut-punch moment that never really came for me.

My problem, as it turned out, was that I was looking too much at the foreground, and it was only hours later that I realised that the key components that make this film the powerhouse it’s been labelled as were all tucked away somewhere in the background. That’s really what Aftersun is all about: at its core, it’s about someone looking beyond the glossier details and finding greater meaning and analysis in the moments that are barely visible to the naked eye. If you come at it from that angle, and not by applying the more conventional three-act structure to its narrative, then this is a seriously impressive work of art.

The main focus of the film is a shared holiday between young single dad Calum (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio), who have gone away together to a cheap resort in Turkey for some quality time together before she has to go back to school. The holiday itself is remarkably unremarkable; the pair sunbathe, splash around in the pool, head to the beach, socialise with some of the other kids, get involved in the naff resort activities like performing the very new Macarena dance – did I mention this takes place sometime in the 90s? – and so on. However, the more we see of Calum and Sophie’s loving relationship, the more it becomes obvious that something’s not right, at least with Calum. Although he’s attentive, caring, and sometimes deeply embarrassing as parents of young children tend to be, he’s clearly haunted by something that is worming its way into his psyche, and it shows as he gradually becomes more and more emotionally distant from his daughter. This leads into the film’s wraparound segment, wherein an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) – who’s now a parent herself – is diving back into her memories of the holiday via a camcorder they both used to document their trip, and trying to piece together what her father might have been going through at that time.

With less emphasis on plot and character development, and more on an expressionist thread of ambiguity, Aftersun isn’t so much a narrative feature as it is a series of memories strung together to form a cohesive whole. Wells often veers into surreal territory to convey the fragmented nature of her central character’s memories, personified by interspliced rave sequences where adult Sophie navigates her way through a strobe-lit dancefloor, with the audience barely catching more than a second’s glimpse at a time of her actions. The stark contrast between the gentler, more digestible scenes of holiday in the sunshine is deliberate, as it allows the filmmaker enough space to explore the deeper and darker crevasses of her character’s version of events, in ways that aren’t immediately obvious to the viewer. More importantly, though, is how the fragmented angle enables Wells to examine some very personal issues from a completely different point of view; while the film isn’t explicably autobiographical (though in interviews, Wells has confirmed that there are some traces of her own experiences sprinkled throughout), it feels like something sculpted from a hands-on situation earlier in the filmmaker’s life, which she now dramatizes from a postmodern perspective that encourages her – and, by extension, the viewer – to go much further than simply recreating a pleasant childhood memory.

Wells ends up doing something rather extraordinary: not only does she manage to show a clearer and much more complex portrait of a father-daughter relationship than most other straightforward narratives, all without getting into specific details – we end up knowing very little about what sort of inner turmoil that doting dad Calum is going through, nor what eventually becomes of him and his relationship with Sophie outside of this holiday – but she also finds inventive and emotionally rich new ways to say everything while actually saying very little. There are several long takes in this movie where the camera is statically placed in front of these two main characters (both excellently performed by Paul Mescal and newcomer Frankie Corio, whose fantastic chemistry together is evident throughout), and everything you need to know is conveyed not necessarily through words, but through body language, lighting, mise-en-scène, and slow but precise editing. One shot that is shown almost entirely through the reflection of a TV is in and of itself a masterclass of framing, which makes it all the more impressive that this is Wells’ first feature (she already has a few shorts to her name), as she already has such a strong grasp of filmic storytelling without giving away all the answers at once.

Aftersun is a real thinker of a movie, for at first you may feel like there is something missing to tie it all together, only to later realise that whatever it was is absent for a reason. Wells’ film isn’t about giving straight answers, just as much as there aren’t any when it comes to our own memories, as the filmmaker has decisively shown in her complex, tricky, but ultimately rewarding feature that ambitiously retains a considerable level of ambiguity, while also saying everything she needs to say at the same time. It’s possible that there will be others, like myself, who see this film and may find it difficult at first to understand what exactly it’s trying to do – my advice would be to go in not expecting anything you may be comfortable with, and to keep enough of an open mind to see it from a different angle than you might have thought to whilst watching it. That way, you can see exactly the kind of unique and profound piece of art that has already won over so many critics and audiences.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Aftersun is a complex but emotionally rewarding debut from writer-director Charlotte Wells, whose ambiguous and often abstract nature may at first alienate some viewers, but there is some truly unique and masterful filmmaking at play to convey its exploration of sun-drenched memories and their deeper meanings, in a profound piece of art that’s one of a kind.

Aftersun will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 18th November 2022 – click here to find a screening near you!

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