‘Aftersun’ movie review: Charlotte Wells’ stunning debut is a quiet rumination of the lost daughter

Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells’ autobiographical fiction about a father and daughter on a vacation, is tender when it is most reflective, and meditative when it doesn’t say much

January 06, 2023 05:30 pm | Updated January 07, 2023 12:47 pm IST

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in ‘Aftersun’

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in ‘Aftersun’

“Do you ever feel like you’ve just done a whole amazing day, and you come home tired and down, and it feels like your bones don’t work? They are just tired. Everything is tired. And you’re just sinking,” asks 11-year-old Sophie to her father Calum Paterson, on the eve of his 31st birthday.

We get a POV shot of Calum facing his ghost in the mirror mouthing “yeah” in silence. He spits on his mirror image before reminding Sophie they are here to have a good time. Calum has such an extreme reaction for the reason that Sophie seems to have confirmed his innermost feelings about himself; that Calum is a ship that is crumbling from inside.

Calum and Sophie have come for a one-week holiday at a Turkish resort. Sophie lives with her mom in London, while Calum lives in Scotland. Both Calum and Sophie are dealing with something far more internal. And this scene that comes in the half-hour mark writes itself, and conveys what  Aftersun is all about: processing feelings and reflecting on.

There are three layers (or perspectives) with which  Aftersun unfolds. The movie could be seen as Sophie reminiscing about a memorable holiday with her dad and the things he did for her during their time together. We witness the warmth the duo shares in these portions. It could be as simple as Calum applying lotion on Sophie’s back, constantly checking on her and whether she is having a good time, or playing pool games. We get a traditional “movie” here.

The second perspective is of adult Sophie looking at her own self, trying to process the feelings she had as an 11-year-old. It could be anything; from embracing sexuality or the urgency to grow up as an adult. “When you were 11, what did you think you’d be doing now?” she asks Calum, while capturing his silence on camera. 

In the middle portion, we see Sophie discovering her sexuality; she gets to have her first kiss with a boy almost her age but it does nothing to her. On the other hand, Sophie is quite inquisitive about girls, almost looking at their bodies in wonderment. Not just bodies, but she looks at the way girls dress, their hair and even takes note of the slightest of gestures. 

Director: Charlotte Wells
Cast: Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio
Storyline: Sophie watches footage of a memorable trip from 20 years ago, recollecting the memories she had with her dad Calum

In the present, Sophie, as she embraces motherhood, tries to understand her father better. Especially the feeling of “tiredness” that she now seems to feel. What remained a mystery about Calum, what were unspoken words between them, and what was “distant” about her father, is no longer the same. It is as if Sophie sees a reflection of herself in Calum. It is almost Sophie saying, “Dad, I get you now.”  Aftersun is more about feelings than perspectives. The camera functions as a tool to achieve that. Rather, it is used to create more motifs that can recur throughout the movie but with a different meaning. This technique compliments the movie’s broader idea of reflections.

There is something about Paul Mescal’s face that is both charming and heartbreaking at the same time. We saw this earlier in Normal People too. He has a persona that is quite distinct and “distant” if you know what I mean. Mescal comes across as elusive, as if he is “away” and hiding something from us, until he flashes a disarming smile that makes you feel he is doing alright. We do not know if this was a conscious decision or not, but this attribute of the actor blends so well with the movie, to the extent that it mirrors who real Calum is. 

Frankie Corio as Sophie does a remarkable “non-acting”. Both Mescal and Corio are natural and move with each other like Tai Chi. So much so that even the “softest” moments, like Sophie dedicating a surprise birthday song for Calum, or the latter just looking at her, make it even harder for us when the characters part ways.

There are certain things you understand and certain things you don’t, when you are young. Paul Mescal, during an interview with  The Hindu, made a beautiful observation about us trying to “label our parents as one thing”. That is exactly what  Aftersun refrains from doing. It shows the duality of parenthood. What is so remarkable about  Aftersun is, it is profound in its thoughts and communicates to the audience in silence.

The movie is as satisfying as the wide shots that show Calum and Sophie existing in a frame not bound by space or time. Like the extreme wide shot of them floating in the sea. “Live wherever you want and be whoever you want to be. You have time,” says Calum. This would have been just another “dad” thing for Sophie at that moment. But with the benefit of hindsight, I’m sure Sophie somewhere is sobbing at the mention of time. We are all running out of it. And the movie wants us to make it count, when we have it.

Time and reality bind the narrative of  Aftersun. Wells could have made the same movie with the daughter rummaging through old photographs, but she smartly makes Sophie capture Calum on camera. Because the camera creates an illusion of real time, making us  feel as if we are  there.

By looking at the past, Sophie wants to make sense of the present. Perhaps she is seeking answers by losing herself in the weight of memory. Throughout the movie, we see a recurring motif of Calum in isolation with neon lights all over him, dancing at a party. The closer Sophie thinks she gets to her dad, to preserve the memory of him, the farther she gets away from her current reality, where she lives with her partner (a woman), and their son. 

Perhaps Sophie gets Calum now. Her realisation is like that scene where they take an instant photo, and we watch the image slowly come together creating an illusion that it is developing right in front of our eyes. The movie is crushing in that sense: it opens with Sophie’s image superimposed on Calum on camera, rather, we see her shadows on him. And in the end, it’s Calum who ends up filming her in an empty room. 

Aftersun expands slowly as a movie, but the aftereffect it leaves on us comes crashing down like a wave. There is a devastating scene towards the end when Calum and Sophie prepare to leave on the last day of their holiday. After what was a rough night, they embrace each other and we see them practising Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art that involves controlled movements. In the gentlest scene, Calum asks Sophie to “breathe”. Just breathe, Sophie.

Aftersun is currently streaming on MUBI India

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