Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Aftersun (2022) dir. Charlotte Wells

The luminescence of a loved one years later


If you had somehow lived thus far without developing a human attachment to the memory of a person you knew long ago and were to watch Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, you would most likely describe this movie as a father-daughter vacation. If prompted for more descriptors: the father is Paul Mescal, the daughter is newcomer Frankie Corio, and the vacation is at a beach resort in Turkey. Well, maybe even if you did have an emotional reaction to this movie, you might still feel like nothing momentous had happened. But if you’ve ever known a person through a fog, then Aftersun might be one of the most touching examples of caring for someone despite never knowing their true depths.

There aren’t any tricks here. The story is seemingly as benign as it sounds, even for the couple of layers beneath. Calum (Mescal) and Sophie (Corio) exist together in a healthy, cordial father-daughter relationship. Calum is attentive when they’re together, Sophie is generally respectful, and their tiffs barely invoke a raised voice. We watch their vacation through the reflective lens of an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), either through memories, homemade videos, or the recurring nightmare of her gazing at Calum on a dark dance floor. Through this pace of slow unraveling, we come to understand Calum’s hiding spots in the way that the child Sophie sees and the adult Sophie remembers. In his alone time where he practices tai chi or smokes on the balcony, the frames are distant and cut off, as if to say that there will always be missing pieces to the full picture.

There is a lot of introspection. How much does Sophie remember? How much of the empty space surrounding Calum does she fill, knowing more about being an adult than she did before? Initially, I thought the film would speak closely to those who have felt the itch to understand someone who is inaccessible. There is no “older” Calum in this story; it is Sophie’s own reconciliation of her memories of that vacation, unresolved feelings, and her own experiences since. She is about eleven years old (Calum is also young and is mistaken for her older brother), and is in the era of prepubescent transition, where her curiosity shifts from her inner familiar world to the outer world, namely toward the other sex. There are lingering gazes on teenagers exploring each other bodies and timid interactions with boys. If this change in focus is meant to be the contemplative version of “I’m not 8 years old anymore, Dad,” then Wells has given a mindful, slow beginning to the disintegration of their relationship, even if it might not be the core reason.

So where in Aftersun does the magic happen? Part of it is Paul Mescal’s undying efforts to bring forth the best iteration of his characters. God’s Creatures was his convincing act as the beloved son capable of doing bad things; Mescal in Aftersun is asking for sorrow for a young, divorced father who shies away from exposure. The other part of the magic is something I can try to explain in a feeling. Think of someone who has done something kind for you in the past. It might be someone you know or a stranger. People do nice things all the time, but there must be an instance where you might have thought, “Why would they do this?” But as you grow older and wiser from different situations and that person stays the same in your memory, the question changes: “Despite it all, how did they do this?” If it is not clear yet, Calum faces his own unspecified demons that dance in Sophie’s blind spots. For the most part, he tries to keep it together, but as Sophie sees the mirage of a calm man shake, the docility of the vacation feels troubled. It is until the end when we see the crest of this emotional tide look more like a tidal wave: the collision of Sophie and Calum on the dance floor, in both memory and in imagination, that brings together the remaining shattered pieces.

dir. Charlotte Wells
96 min.

Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema. Opens Friday, 11/4 at Coolidge Corner Theatre.

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