Aftersun – Movie Review

Aftersun

  • Director: Charlotte Wells
  • Writers: Charlotte Wells
  • Starring: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Brooklyn Toulson, Sally Messham

Grade: A-

Take yourself back to a treasured memory from when you were younger. Better yet, take yourself back to a memory from a pivotal time in your life. What comes flooding back to mind first probably aren’t the bigger moments like the actual events that happened, but how those moments made you feel. How they impacted you and changed your worldview, even though you may not have fully realized it at the time.

Vacations are crucial memories for a lot of people, and it’s the ideal setting for a coming-of-age film like Aftersun, the stunning feature debut from writer-director Charlotte Wells. It’s a deceptively simple film on its surface, though it’s thematically rich enough to almost demand a second viewing, if not for the simple pleasure of soaking up all its smaller elements.

Aftersun; A24

The film follows Calum (Paul Mescal) and his eleven year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on their vacation to a seaside resort. Wells clues us in early on that Aftersun is not a film to spoon-feed its details to the audience, and it’s all the better for it. There’s been some kind of a split between Calum and Sophie’s mother but we’re never given any exposition to explain why or how it will work once they return home. He still finishes his phone calls with “I love you” but can’t accurately explain why when Sophie prods. Sophie wonders optimistically if her mother and father will get back together, as all children of divorce do. Mescal and Corio’s chemistry together is crucial to selling the film’s central relationship, and I never wavered on believing that the two would have a relationship outside of the events of the film. Both Mescal and Corio deliver subtle but strong performances. Corio especially is impressive, implying a world of curiousness with little more than a lingering stare.

Aftersun is a mosaic of a film; a collection of fleeting memories that add up to a staggering whole. Buffering certain scenes are static, seemingly random images that, when viewed individually, don’t add up to much, but Wells makes sure they stick in your mind after they’re gone. After Calum and Sophie check into their room for their first night, Sophie falls asleep and Calum goes out onto the balcony to smoke. The camera lingers on him for what seems like a lifetime over Sophie’s shoulder as he methodically sways and dances (Wells smartly restrains the scene and doesn’t pump in music, but simply lets the scene be filled with ambient noise). This scene is crucial for understanding the film to come and its methodically patient storytelling. Aftersun is a coming-of-age story for Sophie, who yearns to be with the older kids – specifically the older boys – no matter her stunted development. Try as she might to fit in, she always gravitates back to the other kids around her own age. But it’s also a film about a father’s frayed relationship with his daughter at a crucial time in her development.

Aftersun; A24

Wells avoids major dramatic developments that similar films would surely dive into; there isn’t an eruption of conflict that threatens to break Calum and Sophie’s tenuous bond. For most films this would be a black mark, but Wells is smart enough to know what feels most authentic and what will resonate emotionally. If Aftersun isn’t the best directorial debut of 2022, it’s certainly the most confident. Blair McClendon’s seamless editing also impresses, as the film transitions from one space to another, often without announcing itself. There are also flash-forwards to Sophie’s life as an adult where she, as a new parent (and, as the film implies, a lesbian) begins to understand and relate to her father, though the distance between them has clearly grown. Again, whereas most films would overplay this angle and bog down the narrative, Aftersun leaves you hunting for clues. If there’s one element that feels like it was borrowed from other films, it’s in the use of Calum’s home videos as he and Sophie record various smaller moments that will live on forever, but these don’t overpower the narrative at large.

One scene later in the film sees Calum buying a handmade carpet from a local artisan, paying more than what he can afford – though, obviously, he doesn’t let Sophie know this. Eagle-eyed viewers may notice it come back later on, and it’s a devastating image that may hold the key to the film’s framing device. It’s the little details like this that makes the film feel like it was plucked from the filmmaker’s own experiences. Great movies have the ability to feel like they’re both incredibly specific but can appeal to a universal audience. Aftersun is one of those movies.

Aftersun is screening in select theaters now and will be available in theaters nationwide on November 11.

OSCAR POTENTIAL:

  • Sadly, none. Distributor A24 has its hands plenty full with Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Whale, among others. And Aftersun is too small, too quiet to be anywhere near the Academy’s radar. However, I expect loads of awards and nominations from critics groups and smaller awards bodies.

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