Aftersun (2022)

Charlotte Wells’ debut feature Aftersun opens with a piece of homemade footage of a young girl interviewing her father. She distracts him from whatever it is he is doing by prodding him about his age, because from the point of view of an eleven-year-old, being in your thirties is effectively equivalent to being a biologically functional fossil. The two have good fun, exchange laughs and then the picture freezes, which is where we realize we have not been watching the home video footage per se, but rather we have been looking at a screen where someone else is playing said footage. And we might just make out this person’s reflection in the TV screen.  

Interestingly, the filmmaker keeps coming back to this simple idea more often throughout the film and it is my strong belief that the very way she films certain scenes factors into how she wants this story to be interpreted. That’s because Aftersun isn’t merely a simple narrative about a father (Paul Mescal) and a daughter (Frankie Corio) spending their time at a sleepy Turkish resort. It’s much more than an experiential period piece about nostalgia and growing up. It’s an emotional portrait where a traditional narrative intertwines with memories, gets warped by the flaws in the storyteller’s own recollections, amplified and moulded by the way human brains repackage factual data into works of fiction by applying filters and interpretative transformations before stowing them away for future retrieval. Wells herself refers to this movie as an emotional autobiography, which suggests that what transpires on the screen may be simultaneously completely fictitious and heart-rendingly real.  

It is honestly impossible to even attempt to summarize what Aftersun “is about” in a way most movies are. In fact, it is probably close in spirit to such movies as Somewhere or Wendy and Lucy in that what happens in the film is irrelevant. It honestly does not matter one iota how the story unfolds because Wells’ characters do not have classical arcs. They are memories projected on the screen by the meta-storyteller – adult Sophie – who reminisces about her youth and that time in Turkey when she got to spend a lot of time with her dad. That time she viewed as idyllic and completely normal when she was eleven and which she now understands as riddled with signs her father was going through terrible hardships and did his absolute level best not to let Sophie know.  

That’s what Aftersun is about.  

It’s a movie about fatherhood. It’s a movie about memories. It’s a movie about internalized regret. And it is all neatly packaged into an exquisitely simplistic narrative vehicle that looks positively trite to an uninvested observer. But I assure you, it is not. Charlotte Wells’ debut movie is a soul-crushing masterpiece. 

This collection of mini-vignettes – a holiday album pulled out of the storyteller’s memory bank – is an emotional map guiding the viewer through the landscape of nostalgia, youthful serenity and simple everyday humanity, as well as it is an impressionistic puzzle harbouring unresolved trauma somewhere beneath its epidermis. It is crucial to come back to this seemingly fleeting image from the opening of the film, a realization we are watching someone watching the movie, in order to comprehend what may be at play here. This is because the filmmaker plays with our perception of reality through the differences in how she films the central character of Calum, Sophie’s dad.  

Young Sophie – already a budding filmmaker which suggests an autobiographical connection – films her dad directly. She points the camera at him and behaves like a documentarian. Wells on the other hand, when filming Calum often chooses to point the camera not at him directly but at his reflection. When he practices tai chi in the hotel room, we only see his reflection in the corner of the screen. When he speaks to Sophie from the bathroom, we see him through a mirror. In one scene, Wells purposefully points the camera down at the table at which he is sitting to catch his warped reflection instead of tilting it up to frame him directly. Why? Perhaps it is to instil an eerie emotional uncertainty that what we are watching is not Calum as he was at the time, but it is Calum as Sophie remembers him and – as time goes on – Calum without the mask he donned for his daughter to see.  

As we come to understand, Aftersun is above all a combination of a coping mechanism and a love letter to someone who may have passed away or otherwise disappeared from the filmmaker’s life. In fact, Wells’ early short Tuesday suggests this may be a recurring theme in her young life and that there is a lot of subtle autobiographical cues embedded in the narrative without explicitly revealing themselves as such.  

Thus, Aftersun is equally personal as it is general. It is both a beautiful piece of emotional autobiography that connects the filmmaker to important moments picked out from her own memory and a fascinating study of that singular connection only dads and daughters are aware of. I suppose at this point it needs to be noted that the film’s prowess wouldn’t be the same had it not been for its perfect casting, as Paul Mescal truly envelops the complexities of his character and Frankie Corio perfectly naturally embodies Sophie, a girl who is equally traversing into teenagerhood as she is still a little girl in the eyes of her dad. In fact, thanks this perfect confluence of Frankie’s naturalistic behaviour and her resolute demeanour, the film’s power is amplified. It triumphs as an emotionally captivating depiction of the nuanced relationship between dads and their daughters, which perfectly positions itself to eventually shift our gaze into the filmmaker’s soul and attempt to understand what she may be going through herself; something we never fully realize because she stops short of baring her soul in the end.  

Thanks to infrequent insert shots in strobe and occasional scenes where Wells has a chance to film Calum without Sophie being present, we can try to unpack that something’s afoot. We can infer that Calum is dealing with something and that he may be on his way out of this world. But we can never be sure. Only the filmmaker knows what happens to Calum and how it relates to her own life. Instead, what we get to experience is a bittersweet experience that is equally serene as it is petrifying. It’s a cinematic hot summer afternoon before a lightning storm. It’s beautiful and scorching and hot and perfect, but way out in the distance you can see the dark blue disc of clouds slowly moving towards you. And you know a storm is coming because despite the fact the sun is caressing your face, the air is heavy and humid.  

Aftersun is all that – a love letter, a nostalgic trip, a cry of regret and a prayer for forgiveness because little Sophie was too young to notice what adult Sophie understands now. She just learned by watching her own home video that the reason why her dad is no longer with her was out there in the open. It was in the brief moments when he didn’t know he was being filmed. It was in those pauses he took before answering Sophie’s difficult questions with a realistically put-on smile. It was in those moments of goofiness and momentary aloofness. It was in his eyes.  

Sophie understood and she wants us to get it too, that fathers do put on masks. We do.  

We don’t try to hide our emotions or suppress them to appear as something we are not. We do this to make sure our daughters can have enough time to fortify their hearts and minds against the hardship of adulthood. True. Sometimes we fail. Calum most likely failed too. But he sure tried not to. And Aftersun is a document illustrating this complex, nuanced and doomed process of trying not to give up because it would break a little girl’s heart. It is a wonderful, personal piece of filmmaking that veers between fiction and factual recollection and drives a stake through our hearts with the honesty of its mission and the utmost artistry of its craft.  

Aftersun is perfect.

One thought on “Aftersun (2022)

  1. Pingback: Oscar Noms, the Death of Hollywood and Early Onset Dementia | Flasz On Film

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