‘Aftersun’ Paints a Heart-wrenching Portrait of A Father & A Memory
Aftersun, released in late October, is writer-director Charlotte Wells’ gently devastating debut feature about a father-daughter relationship. Eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her affectionate but distant dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), go on a vacation together to the idyllic Turkish Coast. In occasional non-linear flashes to the present, an adult Sophie looks through the pixelated camcorder footage she filmed on that trip, reflecting on their fraught relationship.
For the bulk of the retrospective narrative, Wells transports viewers back to the wistful haze and sticky delirium of childhood family vacations: the dutiful reapplications of sunscreen, the sweat that sticks to the back of your neck, the yellowed glow of the hotel lamp after a long day out. By mastering these tiny details and sensations, Aftersun embraces its audience in a thick fog of nostalgia, but to say that the film is about nostalgia would be an oversimplification. Aftersun is a poignant meditation on the relationship between memory and mourning—the things we grow to know and may never know about the people we have lost.
Frankie Corio gives a star-making performance in her first-ever acting role as Sophie. She is remarkably comfortable on screen, and her rapport with Paul Mescal fills every scene with easygoing banter. Through her line delivery and subtle expressions, Corio captures the particular emotional nuance unique to the years that precede adolescence. At eleven years old, Sophie is still a kid, but her need to cling to childhood safety nets is paired with a growing desire to venture outside herself and a new understanding that nothing—not even her father—is infallible.
Paul Mescal, whose name is quickly garnering mass recognition in Hollywood, plays the young father in question. Much like his widely beloved character Connell in the miniseries Normal People, there is an undercurrent of melancholy bubbling beneath Calum’s gentle veneer. Between the lighthearted scenes where he teaches Sophie tai chi and clumsily attempts handstands in the ocean to make her laugh, we catch glimpses of a man barely keeping it together. Though we never learn the details of Calum’s pain, Wells shows us enough to understand that he is not happy with how things have gone in his life. Mescal handles these complexities with incredible subtlety and grace.
Beyond the excellent performances, Aftersun also pushes the boundaries of what editing and cinematography can communicate. The camerawork is intimate yet distant—emotions hide in plain sight. In one scene, the camera rests on a sleeping Sophie, so close that we can hear her heaving breaths. In the background, slightly out of focus, Calum smokes a cigarette alone and dances in a strange, ritualistic fashion. What is he thinking about? This question haunts the viewer and older Sophie as she combs through her recollections of a man she thought she knew. Calum’s elusive presence is a repeated pattern in the film; he is almost always partially obscured despite being half of the story’s focus. He lives in the reflections of the TV, behind glass screens, or hidden in door frames. These cinematography choices reflect how Sophie perceives her father in her memory—only partly there.
Wells’ ambiguous method of storytelling is likely not for everyone. Some audience members may leave the theater confused or unfulfilled by the myriad of questions the film leaves unanswered: What exactly was Calum struggling with? What happened to him after the vacation? But despite the pull of curiosity, I would argue the lack of answers is essential to the crux of the film. The failure to remember and understand is adult Sophie’s greatest heartbreak and, by extension, the heartbreak we absorb.
A moment in the third act of Aftersun, right before the calamitous ending sequence, perfectly encapsulates the film’s central feeling. It is the last night of the vacation, and a resort photographer snaps a polaroid picture of Sophie and Calum as they eat dinner. The camera rests on a close-up of the developing photo, their frozen smiles slowly coming into view. At one point, Sophie asks her father, “Why can’t we just stay here?” This question, so innocent in delivery, is the root of inevitable heartache; even as these words leave her mouth, the moment is already sneaking further into the past. The gradual development of the polaroid reminds us of the cruelty of impermanence, the ruthless marching of time.
Aftersun feels like a breath of fresh air and a reminder of what movies can achieve in a year of cinema oversaturated with live-action remakes and exhaustive biopics. The film is based loosely on Wells’ own life, but its universality is a testament to her masterful storytelling and prodigious vision. With a Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize under her wing and an increasing flow of critical acclaim following the film’s limited theatrical release, Wells is undoubtedly a name to watch out for in coming years.
Sabrina Mei is a sophomore in the MSB majoring in Finance and minoring in Film & Media Studies. She is one of the Reviews Editors for the INDY.