Writer: Charlotte Wells
Director: Charlotte Wells
Cast: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio
Set in the Nineties and unfolding like the supercut you play in your mind of someone you’ve lost, Charlotte Wells’s warm, wistful and wrenching debut feature about a divorced father and his daughter follows Calum (Paul Mescal, who has been nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards) and 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) on vacation in Turkey. Parts of Aftersun effect a blur — a camcorder's grainy footage, the neon lights of the shops blending into each other from the window of a bus — but each time the camera cuts to Sophie, it creates the sense of her committing it all to memory with the sharp tenacity of a child. So much of this childhood will recede into the rearview mirror as she grows up, despite her frantic efforts to reverse and turn around; but she doesn’t know that yet. For now, one sunny day slips into the next as she and her father laze by a hotel pool. He tenderly applies sunscreen to her back. She asks the kind of gently piercing questions that only children can. He indulges his inner child. She displays the maturity of an adult.
In one scene, when Calum expresses a reluctance to be filmed, young Sophie responds, “I'll just record you in my mind camera." It’s a bittersweet bit of foreshadowing — for better and worse, that’s the only place she’ll ever be able to find him again.
The warmth of Calum and Sophie’s bond is so all-encompassing, it takes a while for the underlying sadness of Aftersun to make its presence felt. Sophie loves her father, but it slowly becomes clear that she doesn't really know him. It takes an unusually perceptive gaze to see a parent as a person in their own right when you’re as young as Sophie, but her curiosity is also propelled by Calum’s inscrutability. For every detail he lets her (and the viewer) in on, there are so many more he refuses to divulge. When Calum asks his former wife, “Are you checking up on me?”, is it lighthearted banter or does she have genuine cause? When he talks about not expecting to make it to 30, is that self-deprecation or self-loathing? Like Sophie, viewers are left to scour each frame and conversation for clues. Gradually, a clearer picture emerges: Calum became a father young, he can’t afford to give Sophie the quality of life he wishes he could. There are glimpses of empty promises and unfulfilled dreams. There’s so much love, it can only tip over into loss.
Wells’s framing device, a camcorder through which a now-adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) rewatches footage of this holiday years later, makes the distance between father and daughter throb like a fresh bruise. The idyll of Sophie and Calum's holiday is punctuated by constant reminders of time — a bedside clock glows 3.09am in the dark, Sophie must return to school on a Tuesday. Conversations in the film play out on reflective surfaces or ripple with the fuzziness of an old home video, melding the past and present into melancholy, and reminding us that these are just echoes of a moment and not the moment itself.
In Aftersun, memories are the only thing that can cut through the chasm between time and space, but they also can make the distance feel so much harder to bridge, the loneliness so much more acute. A character in David Cronenberg’s short film Camera says, “When you record the moment, you record the death of the moment.” This is pointedly true for Wells’s film. Each time Calum looks back at Sophie over his shoulder (the reflexive worry of a parent keeping an eye on their child), it parallels grown-up Sophie’s ache at being unable to reach into the past and see him just as clearly.
The power of Aftersun is its restraint. It neither depicts the moment of Calum’s leaving nor reveals the reason behind it. All that’s left are Sophie’s memories of him, preserved in amber, preserving her so that she can’t move on. In Wells’s debut feature, time slows down and speeds up. It simultaneously condenses into clouds, the wisps of which curl away too quickly to hold on to and fragments itself into a hundred jagged memories, the outlines of which are sharp enough to cut. The biggest tragedy, however, is that time doesn't stand still.