Aftersun, Charlotte Wells
Credit: TIFF
by Igor Fishman Film

Aftersun — Charlotte Wells

September 13, 2022

Memories are fragile; they weather with time, fray around the edges, and sometimes, when left to their devices, fade altogether. Photographs and film can store them, but this act of preservation has a flattening effect, its artificial finality eating memories alive until only the recorded image remains. Childhood, the deepest past, is most vulnerable to this and can easily be reduced to a series of photos or video snippets — the memories that once were, rebuilt on plastic bedrock. This tension, between holding on to those messy fragments and the hard-edged recorded image, is a focal point in writer/director Charlotte Wells’ outstanding Aftersun, a story of a father and his daughter on vacation, lensed through the act of remembrance. For the most part, it’s a quiet film touched with melancholy and calm even for its category of nostalgic reverie, a quality which makes the occasional intrusions of the present, tinged with frustration and loss, cut all the deeper. Particularly arresting are the lingering ambiguities left open by the Scottish-born director who offers the audience an unusual degree of respect and distance through her narrative. 

Wells’ emphatically understated approach was already evident in her NYU graduate short Tuesday, where a grieving teenager escapes to her father’s empty home, the particularities or even certainty of his death only implied in the girls’ sacrosanct handling of his things — restringing his guitar feels holy and ritualistic, while his half-drank cup of orange juice suggests a sudden demise. Instead of pushing the viewer away, this subtleness draws them closer as the emotional tones lay down a compass. Wells would illustrate this again in her harrowing short Laps, wherein a subway sexual assault is depicted in chilling daylight. Obscured in plain sight on the crowded train, we are once again left to read emotional tea leaves in order to grasp the gravity of what we’ve witnessed. Now with her feature debut, Aftersun, her method arrives to us refined and more robust than ever. 

Set in the 1990s, a father and daughter — Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) — are enjoying a pleasant, if somewhat underwhelming, trip to the Turkish seaside. Their holiday is for the most part warm and friendly, filled with everyday ups and downs, and yet as fragments of this trip compound, subtle throughlines develop: Calum’s increasing lapses into detachment and introspection and Sophie’s uncertain pull towards adolescence. The two are drifting even as they cling together; meanwhile, bursts of the present day with a grown-up Sophie (Celia Rowlson Hall) parallel the two as adults while suggesting a more profound finality to their holiday. The casting here is a minor miracle: Mescal effortlessly entwines Calum’s loving fatherly instinct masking a penchant for depressive fugues and simmering anger, while Corio’s Sophie is all youthful exuberance tensed with a heartbreaking wise-beyond-her-years thoughtfulness. Together, the two evoke such natural intimacy that it’s hard to disentangle them from their characters, and their depiction of a father and daughter is so tender and true to life that you wouldn’t want to.

Wells films moments between them with exacting patience, letting shots breathe and linger, capturing minute details: a reflection in the TV screen, wet socks drying on the balcony, a polaroid slowly developing — all of it evoking the rending nostalgia of Terence Davies. In a beautiful long take early on, the camera pans across the length of the hotel bed as Calum removes an exhausted Sophie’s sneakers and tucks her in, shutting off the lights. The camera stays in the darkness racking focus to a sliver of light on the balcony behind Sophie, where Calum reemerges for a late-night cigarette. The shot zooms in on him as he struggles to light a match, fumbling with his arm in a cast, and holds longer still, to catch him in an uninhibited moment of liberated dance which with a cigarette in hand recalls Denis Lavant’s climactic release in Beau Travail, an intriguing touchpoint that resurfaces in the ferocious nightclub closer. In addition to these graceful sequences, camcorder footage is interspersed throughout, oft shaky, grainy, and out of focus but revelatory all the same and ultimately the primary artifact Sophie clings to years down the line.

It’s a marvel that the climactic sequence inside of a strobed nightclub, that forms Wells’ exclamation point here, comes off so naturally given that it’s soundtracked by a beloved classic (which I won’t spoil here), a testament to the way that she brilliantly employs a nostalgic hit-heavy songbook featuring the likes of the “Macarena” and “Tubthumping” as the diegetic playlist one would expect of a tacky hotel running through the hits. This approach facilitates Sophie’s heartbreaking karaoke of “Losing My Religion,” and disarms us for the emotional wallop of that final number. True to form, Wells leaves us with a confident ambiguity crescendoing in those last moments shared by the duo. We have the freedom to fill in the blanks but the emotional textures are undeniable; Sophie holds the camcorder in her hands, but there is no mechanical device that could store her depth of feeling as the memory crests across time and space.


Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.