Aftersun (2022)

Charlotte Wells | 1hr 36min

Childhood memories are often tragically limited in their perspective and accuracy, and yet these are all a grown-up Sophie has to reach some understanding of her father’s hidden struggles in Aftersun. Much of the film is based in these wistful ruminations, set sometime in the early 2000s when the two holidayed together at a Turkish resort to celebrate his 31st birthday. The home videos Sophie shot on a MiniDV camera are interspersed throughout, providing some tangible documentation of what we can only assume were his final days alive, but alone they are woefully insufficient. As Charlotte Wells’ elliptical narrative drifts by at the comfortable pace of a lazy summer vacation, a broader yet still incomplete picture begins to form of a relationship that Sophie can only make some retrospective sense of twenty years later, now finding herself standing in her father’s shoes.

The character work of Aftersun is built on incredible subtlety, and much of this comes down to Paul Mescal’s marvellously understated performance as Calum. He is a man capable of great warmth, offering Sophie a non-judgemental space to express personal feelings few other daughters would share with their fathers. Of all the ways he could have spent his birthday, it is telling that he chose to celebrate it with her, as within the insulated bubble of this setting she essentially becomes his entire world.

The hints of there being something not quite right though are teased out in restrained dramatic beats that one could easily glance over. Calum’s silent, tortured reaction when Sophie speaks of an emotional low he knows too well, his awkward stoicism when Sophie organises a crowd to sing an impromptu birthday song, and his guilty reckoning with the price of a Turkish rug are inconsequential enough on their own. But when they build to a cold rejection of his daughter’s request to sing karaoke with him and a night spend crying alone in the darkness, we are left to consider how much these stresses are simply the surface evidence of some deeper issues.

Wells’ filmmaking flourishes in these tiny moments of distraction, evoking the frivolity of memories that narrow in on strange, seemingly trivial details. There is a flock of paragliders that is seemingly always suspended in the air above the resort, forming delicate backdrops to Calum and Sophie’s poolside respites, and a later cutaway to the swirling surface of a mud bath brings with it a hypnotic break in the drama. While father and daughter chat on their last night about how they could stay there forever, Wells’ camera gently drifts towards the polaroid photo they just took. It is effectively a moment frozen in time, and as we watch it slowly process, the immense significance that Sophie will one day attach to it begins to settle.

It is ironically through this distance put between us and the characters that Aftersun develops such a formal sensitivity to the tiniest shifts in their emotional states, especially when we are positioned to watch them in the obscured reflections of rippling pools and darkened television screens. That said, there are still signs here that this is the work of a first-time director, at times leaving the emotional heavy lifting almost entirely up to her actors while her camera simply sits back, points, and shoots. It isn’t a damning weakness, but it is possible to imagine a stronger version of this film which weaves in its motifs with even greater purpose and consistency.

There is no criticising the final act of Aftersun though, when the time comes for the holiday to end and Sophie’s mind to return to the present day. It is a culmination of the brief flashforwards effortlessly integrated throughout the film, as well as the mysterious cutaways to a strobe-lit rave where she and her father stand apart. In this dark, subjective space, linear time falls away to a splintered remix of David Bowie and Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’, uniting the past’s trauma with the grief of the present in a melancholy embrace.

The final camera pan which gracefully merges Sophie’s current apartment with the airport where she last said goodbye to her father offers a pensive conclusiveness, once again pulling the two time periods apart at the moment of their intersection. While much of the film is dominated by Wells’ slice-of-life realism, this deliberate shift towards visually representing Sophie’s unsettled psychology makes for an incredibly poignant resolution. It would be impossible to fully grasp the man that Calum was, but through Wells’ deliberate accumulation of subtle character details, we can at least take off the rose-tinted glasses of Sophie’s childhood and piece together a fragmented portrait of his stifled, internal suffering.

Aftersun is currently playing in theatres.


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