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Aftersun ★★★★



Director: Charlotte Wells

Cast: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, and Celia-Rowlson-Hall

Release Date: November 18, 2022 (UK)

There’s a universal notion about growing up: we all stop seeing our parents as parents, and we begin to see them as complex, messy, and hurt people. This discovery comes into conflict with our childhood memories of them, providing the basis for Charlotte Wells’s enlightening and sublime debut, Aftersun. Utilizing a juxtaposition of camcorder footage and digitized 35mm scenes, Wells creates a stunning visualization of how memory creates truths and perceptions that fill in the gaps of what we know to be factual, recorded about our past. This is the backdrop for a beautiful story about a daughter discovering the man her father was. Aftersun is thusly a gratifying work, Wells giving the audience all the puzzle pieces to construct our view of this father-daughter relationship through stellar transitions and framing that is to die for.

In the present, Sophie is revisiting the home movies she made as a child on holiday to a resort in the Mediterranean with her dad, Calum. Whilst going through the footage, Sophie’s memory of her vacation is restored through a sense of nostalgia, yet equally that of truth, as she realizes more about Calum’s identity.

Aftersun is a measured and contemplative film, with Wells luxuriating in Sophie’s memories, scenes connected by emotion rather than narrative. It’s a stylistic choice that works in its cumulative capacity, the buildup of moments, joyful and sorrowful, creating the put-together puzzle that is Sophie’s image of her father. Wells’s use of framing to delineate and compress space between the father and daughter can sometimes be soul-crushing, exemplifying Sophie’s view of their relationship as a complicated one. Mescal and Corio’s performances bring a joyous but distant relationship to life. Mescal is stunning in his subdued but striking performance, doing his best as a father trying to manage his own disappointments with life and himself. Meanwhile, Corio has a range, natural curiosity, and quiet contempt rarely seen in child acting, more than holding her own against Mescal.

The nature of the story is one of re-contextualization, and despite this, the present timeline with adult Sophie is visited rarely throughout the film. The audience gets the sense that Wells is less interested in an intrinsic reality but more so in one that Sophie is constructing. This reflexivity creates emotional foundations within Sophie, seeing the grey area of life within her father’s being. This may sound simple, and for much of Aftersun, the narrative is straightforward. Still, Wells’s accumulation of moments and memories coalesces into a final act that is quietly emotionally driven and, ultimately, cathartic on a spiritual level. Wells ties together ideas of one’s re-contextualization of their parents as people, as humans, when we reach an older age of reflection. This style renders the story and Calum elusive as we are oriented with Sophie to search for meaning amongst the mundanity of her memories. It makes Aftersun a challenging but rewarding first watch and positions the film as one that must be revisited to get the most out of it.

Aftersun is the debut of the year. It’s captivating in its carefully designed rhythm, having a similar emotional response to when one looks through photos upon photos of family childhood memories. The digitization of 35mm vs the use of camcorder footage visualizes this, as Sophie’s memories as both nostalgic and ringing with truth. Wells’ most significant achievement is that the audience has a personal connection to Sophie’s memories, as we do to our own. Wells has crafted something special here and will live in my mind as Sophie’s father’s dancing lives in hers. It’s a film full of terrific performances and eye-watering moments. 

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