Written and directed by Charlotte Wells
There’s a peculiar sense of discovery that happens as you grow older and realize the personhood of your parents. As you yourself become an adult, even attain an age you remember your own parents being, it’s as if you get to meet them for the first time again. In a new shared context, empathy grows, and the ensuing realizations can forever change how you view them.
Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’ feature debut, is a nostalgic-but-bitter butterfly kiss of a movie that tells the story of Sophie’s relationship with her father, centered around a vacation the two of them took years prior in Turkey. He’s committed to self-improvement: he studies Tai Chi, reads poetry, is learning how to meditate; his zeal for betterment he passes onto his daughter, keen for her to have a better childhood than the one he hates to discuss. Together, they do classic vacation things, all the while an undercurrent of Sophie’s budding independence hums. She’s precocious and giddy; he’s protective and wistful.
Obsessed with the act of remembering, a digital camcorder binds the film together, and its recordings become documents both parent and child covet, staring at the footage as if to bottle the feelings like a genie in a bottle. Cameras of every variety make their appearance, forcing father and daughter to stand still for a moment, and they both, via Wells’ lens, take each other in.
It’s a film that aches in frustrated longing. Drab current-day scenes of a grown Sophie watching back the tapes tell their own story in comparison to the sun-kissed scenes in Turkey where the water sparkles alongside the holiday fun, but even here, Wells’ poetic approach to cinematography makes much of Aftersun an evanescent affair, fluttering in front of your eyes like sunlight reflecting off morning dew.
Wells will not look straight at the action, choosing instead to film it through its reflection in a tv screen where the characters turned into dark stretchy shadows, or staying close enough to one character to hear their breath while focusing on the other in the other room, their back turned to us and lost to themselves.
It’d be coy if it wasn’t because of Wells’ obvious tragic fascination with the slippery nature of memory. Constantly a little oblique, a little out of hand. Even then, how much of Sophie’s pre-teen recollections can we trust? Especially when much of her headspace doesn’t gravitate to the pensive moods of her father, but instead the sexually curious interplay between teens slightly older than her?
The rapport between Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio as father and daughter is undeniable, with Mescal more than equal to the task of bringing to life an introspective man with high hopes for his daughter, who also can’t stand his own reflection. Not only that, he elevates Corio, who seems free in the gravitas afforded by her scene partner.
Aftersun is a heartwrencher, no doubt about it, but the pace at which it moves for much of its story is perhaps too languorous for some. You have to enjoy deciphering small movements or parsing faces for clues, relish in life’s quietest moments and wistful airs. Aftersun won’t do much to catch your attention other than offer the tenderest of looks into a melancholy past and rueful present and for those who are patient a groundswell of emotions awaits.