Aftersun (now on VOD streaming services like Amazon Prime Video) is among 2022’s most significant critical successes. The accolades for Scottish writer/director Charlotte Wells’ feature debut began at Cannes, where premier art-film distributor A24 snapped it up for North American distribution; it gathered further acclaim through the festival circuit before landing on the National Board of Review and Sight & Sound’s best-of-the-year lists. It stars first-timer Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal – of BBC series Normal People and 2021’s extraordinary The Lost Daughter – as daughter and father on a sunny, seaside Turkish vacation, framed as a melancholy reminiscence that quietly sinks into your bones.
AFTERSUN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Shaky camcorder video: Sophie (Corio) films her dad, Calum (Mescal). It’s two days before his 31st birthday. “When you were 11, what did you think you’d be doing now?” she asks, playfully. He never really answers. The footage was shot 20ish years ago, when she was 11, and they took a holiday in a resort in Turkey. They arrive at the hotel to find their room has only one bed, when he booked for two. Would it be a big deal if father and daughter slept in the same double bed? Probably not, yet he sleeps on a cot. Or perhaps doesn’t sleep very well – the clock on the bedside table reads 3:08 a.m. Now, 3:09.
It’s a relaxing trip, with time spent languorously in restaurants and poolside. Sophie plays a motorcycle video game, and chats with a boy her age. They do a little bit of snorkeling, take a bus trip to scenic locales, play billiards, watch as resort staff performs the Macarena; Calum refuses to do karaoke with Sophie, while she refuses to dance with him in the dance club. They visit a Turkish rug merchant, and Calum tells Sophie how each piece tells a story. He inquires about a price for a rug, but it’s expensive; he’ll go back later, without Sophie, to purchase it.
As the quiet, introspective narrative plays out, we piece together the dynamic between these two. Calum and Sophie’s mother aren’t together – they clearly had Sophie when they were relatively young. He doesn’t have much money, and appears to be struggling professionally. Being only 11, Sophie doesn’t seem to quite understand why he seems to be so emotionally inaccessible. Sometimes, he practices tai chi, and she rolls her eyes at his “slo-mo ninja moves.” For his birthday, Sophie encourages a busload of tourists to sing to him, and he doesn’t appear to be happy or even embarrassed. He just looks glum. Blank.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Aftersun offers the understated artistry of a Kelly Reichardt film – see Old Joy or First Cow – with the strongest, most unaffected child-actor performance since Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project.
Performance Worth Watching: Even when playing a character recording herself with a camcorder, Forio shows a remarkable ability to simply exist, naturally and comfortably, in front of a camera.
Memorable Dialogue: Sophie, to her father: “I think it’s nice that we share the same sky.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Pay close attention and you’ll deduce that Aftersun is the adult Sophie’s melancholy – deeply melancholy – reminiscence of her time with her father. This is a film made whole by its unspoken inferences; to watch it is to marinate in the silences filling space among sparse dialogue. The nature of Sophie and Calum’s relationship is purposely vague, and we’re left to ask questions: They don’t see each other often, do they? She likely lives with her mother most of the time. His personal situation, psychologically or otherwise, is probably too unstable to meet the demands of an 11-year-old girl who, like all children her age, is discovering her independence despite still being wholly dependent on the adults in her life – you know, that awkward developmental stage illustrated by her desire to put sunblock on herself, despite her inability to adequately reach her own shoulder blades. So Calum rubs the lotion in for her.
And so the film prompts us to read into its many small, seemingly mundane moments like this. Sometimes, the relative silence cracks via a pithy observation – maybe the sky, big and vast and blue, is all that truly connected Sophie and Calum – or a few heaving gasps of despair. Wells occasionally drops in on and returns to a surreal dance club sequence where Calum has apparently lost himself in movement and music, and Sophie struggles to reach him; it’s the classical nightmare where you’re reaching for something that’s just out of your grasp, or trying to dial the phone but keep mashing the wrong numbers.
There’s the anger and frustration of loss coursing beneath the tender, but curious scenes of Sophie and Calum playing in the pool or quietly eating a meal. Adult Sophie looks back upon her father and the mystery of his profound melancholy with the perspective of someone who’s become an adult, and likely understands her father better now, in his absence, than she ever did as a child (not that she was at all capable, mind you). There’s a scene in which Sophie and Calum are eating dinner when a man takes their photo, and the Polaroid slowly fades into fuzzy focus. That was her father; this is her memory.
Our Call: Aftersun is the work of an artist capable of invoking abundant emotion via innovative narrative means. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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