Review: In Aftersun, First Time Filmmaker Charlotte Wells Captures Human Emotion, Experience on Film

There comes a time in everyone's life when, sometimes out of the blue and sometimes through hard work from a therapist's couch, each of us realizes that our parents are, actually, just people. That they had lives before we existed, that they make mistakes and bad decisions, that they, in fact, don't know everything and might not actually be perfect. Above all, we realize that they have complicated emotional lives informed by their own traumas, insecurities and upbringings. It's a jarring experience, and once it happens, the realization can cast a long shadow back on memories from long ago, changing the way we think about certain experiences, moments or conversations. In her feature film directorial debut, Aftersun, Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells examines such ethereal themes as if they are sunbeams caught in a prism or grains of sand brushed off sun-kissed skin.

Paul Mescal is Calum and Frankie Corio is his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, and throughout the course of Aftersun, we learn quite a bit about their relationship, but not everything, and it's this inherent mystery that lends the film its compelling magic. That, and the exceptional, dreamy cinematography of Gregory Oke, shots framed in ways that seem insistent on keeping the audience at a distance even while inviting us into this duo's most intimate moments. Calum and Frankie are on holiday in Turkey, spending their long summer days around the resort—at the pool, the arcade, the ocean, the restaurant and floor show—and looking for ways to keep their stilted conversation going as 30-year-old Calum does his best to bond with a daughter who's just shy of teenagedom and showing all the early signs of it.

There's a sweetness to their rapport, of course; Calum calls Sophie "darling" as she innocently leans her head on his shoulder, and Sophie uses their VHS camcorder (Aftersun looks to be set sometime in the early to mid-'90s) to capture her dad in silly moments in their shared hotel room. Underlying it all, though, is a complexity that seems only natural, a complicated relationship dynamic that creeps to the surface in peculiar ways, like when Sophie tries to make sense of the connection between her parents (she hears Calum say "I love you" to her mom over the phone) and Calum quietly struggles with his own unnamed demons, keeping up a brave face for the sake of his little girl. And the vacation itself has a sort of natural arc, the two of them doing just fine for quite a while until too much time together takes its toll and even these two need some time apart to cool off.

Aftersun functions as a sort of cinematic memoir for Wells, who both wrote and directed the film, and her approach evokes the erratic nature of memory, snippets of certainty surrounded by the foggy but just as real recollections of fleeting moments in time. We watch in real time as Calum and Sophie come to new terms with each other, sometimes not even realizing it themselves until after the fact. At one point, Calum offers to pay for Sophie to get singing lessons, and Sophie, with a wisdom beyond her years, deadpans that he should stop offering to pay for things he can't afford. Her frankness catches him off guard, but he can't argue the point; she's right, after all. And it's a moment that fundamentally shifts his understanding of her, no longer a child he can shelter from the reality of the world but a sentient, aware young person who sees things as they really are.

Though it succeeds in a number of ways, Aftersun truly triumphs thanks to the two actors at its center. Corio is exceptionally endearing, and it's a credit to Wells' direction that she delivers a performance so relaxed and nuanced it's as if she's not acting at all. Mescal (The Lost Daughter, "Normal People") truly arrives in this multi-layered and mysterious role, creating a man as dedicated to his daughter as he is tormented by his own insecurities; one can practically see his heart breaking (and feel our own crack a bit) behind his wavering but persistent smile as he puts Sophie on a plane back to her mother. Together, these two deliver perhaps the most emotionally raw performances of the year; Wells' filmmaking allows for zero pretense or dead weight. Every moment here is meaningful and authentic.

As much as Aftersun is the story of a daughter learning to see her father as a whole, flawed person, in the end it's just as much about a father coming to terms with the shift in his relationship with his little girl, seeing her as the person she is, not just the helpless child he brought into the world. The film's final scenes offer the briefest glimpse of context into the film's deeper narrative, and one particular moment caught my heart in my throat. Such is Wells' achievement here, proving better than most films can ever hope to that these motion pictures are, ultimately, vehicles for human emotions and experiences. And how lucky we are that they are.

Aftersun is now playing in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone