As part of our coverage of the 60th annual New York Film Festival, Will DiGravio reviews Charlotte Wells’ stunning debut feature, Aftersun. Follow along with more coverage in our New York Film Festival archives.
Writer-director Charlotte Wells brings one of the best debut features of recent years to the screen with Aftersun, a painfully honest work about the nature of memory. Paul Mescal plays Calum, a father with such a small age gap between him and his young daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), that they are sometimes mistaken for brother and sister while on holiday at a resort in Turkey. Years later, adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) watches home videos recorded on that trip, witnessing with the wisdom of adulthood her father’s mental anguish. Like Sophie watching the home movies, viewers of Aftersun may need (and should) return to this film again and again. It is a magnificently layer work, one that treats suffering and joy not as binary but as two emotions often intermingled.
Everything about Aftersun suggests a transitory time. We experience Calum and Sophie’s time together as both the present and as a memory. At times, Wells abstracts the image, bringing us to a place that exists between the two. This is a film about processing. About the co-existence of pleasure and pain. And trying to understand the past while existing now. While at the resort, both Calum and Sophie show signs of maturing. They are coming of age together. Calum does the usual fatherly things, like insisting that Sophie wear sunscreen and applying it himself. Other times, he acts out like a teenager. At thirty-two, it is clear he is reckoning with the years of adulthood he has left in front of him. He speaks of big plans. Of having a home in London. But, in a devastating moment, Sophie asks him not to make promises he cannot keep.
Sophie, who is eleven, slowly begins to catch a glimpse of teenage life while at the hotel. She begins hanging out late with a group of older kids. She watches as the boys and girls hug and kiss one another in the pool. One night, she has her first kiss with a boy of her own age. While hanging with her father, she slowly begins asking more informed questions about his life, loves, and desires. She wonders how Calum could still tell her biological mother that he loves her even though they are no longer together.
Much of the film is told from Sophie’s perspective. Corio is fantastic. Like another one of the year’s best films, Laura Wandel’s debut feature Playground, Aftersun ingeniously captures that very specific mode of knowing as a child. Sophie picks up on her father’s pain. She knows something is wrong. But she does not know enough to fully understand. Hence why the older Sophie continues to watch. But it must be said that Aftersun offers a far more nuanced portrait of the two than mere words couple capture. This a textured film, one that defies straightforward explanations or descriptions of how characters feel and process. It is part of what makes the film such a rich audiovisual experience.
Aftersun could be described as a series of moments or encounters. Each one builds on the last. Each encounter brings a new level of understanding to that which came before it. A scene of joy might later turn to melancholy. Such moments give the film its bubbling tension. Something bad will happen. Something is amiss. And the camera seems to know what is coming. With the keen eye of cinematographer Greg Oke, the camera lingers on intimate moments, bringing with them a heightened subjectivity. Calum practice tai chi. He drinks. He plays pool with Sophie. And then he drinks some more. Physically, he is on vacation. In his mind, he is in severe pain.
Mescal, who audiences may know best from Normal People, gives a performance of the year as Calum. Between his work here and in another recent film, God’s Creatures, Mescal has given viewers reason to pay special attention when he lands a part for the big screen. As Calum, Mescal brings to life a man in pain who defies any simple explanations but still elicits extreme empathy. We understand he is in pain and at least parts of what is clearly circulating in his head. It is clear that while he, of course, loves Sophie, her presence and existence are a reminder of all that his life is and is not.
Wells and her team pull off a tremendous balancing act in Aftersun. The film exists as a reflection. As an experience. At times, it feels like a dream. And it takes its inspiration in part from Wells’s own life. It is complicated in all the right ways. The film leans into the nuances of emotions and the liquid nature of memory. Aftersun demands and will maintain the attentive viewer. That the actors were able to animate this wonderfully amorphous script marks a true achievement. And it leaves us eagerly waiting for whatever Wells might do next.
Aftersun debuts in theaters in the United States on October 21, 2022. Watch the film’s trailer here.
Related Topics: NYFF