Director: Charlotte Wells
Stars: Frankie Corio, Paul Mescal, Celia Rowlson Hall
I didn’t like Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun as I was watching it. Not to begin with, certainly. The little I knew was that this was a hotly-tipped new Scottish drama documenting a holiday in the late ’90s shared between a young father and his daughter. It is that. But the ways in which Wells challenges convention within the film placed me in an unfamiliar environment and I struggled to acclimate. I felt a mixture of things. Listlessness. Impatience. Obstinance. I considered leaving (there were other factors, including the incredibly cramped space and the set of folks sitting either side of me passing snacks back and forth across me). But I’ve only walked out of one film in my life, and I wanted to persevere…
I left under the distinct impression I’d crossed paths with a new masterpiece and, perhaps, a new way of looking and feeling through cinema.
The well of memory overflows in this extraordinary feature debut, which feels akin to one of the key images it contains; an exposed Polaroid slowly revealing its image; a captured moment, both exact and imprecise. As an adult approaching a birthday, Sophie (Celia Rowlson Hall) reflects on a formative week in Turkey spent with her dad Calum (Paul Mescal) when she was 11 years old. She tumbles into her recollections via the images her younger self (Frankie Corio) captured on camcorder during their stay; opening the doors to remembrances of their loving yet fraught relationship, and a child’s-eye view of depression as experienced by an adult trying to conceal their illness.
Sophie’s relationship to her dad is defined by a liminal sense of distance. Calum is only just cresting 30, meaning he had Sophie young, and he evidently separated from her mother. This particular holiday, then, represented a rare chance for the two to bond but, at 11, Sophie was already starting to pull away.
Wells extrapolates this distance in a number of ways, but the most startling manifests sonically. As we delve into Sophie’s memories of swimming pools, video game arcades and ill-equipped hotel rooms, Wells cancels out peripheral sound. The usual hubbub of a resort environment is wiped out, leaving us suspended in the silence that exists between father and daughter. An uncomfortable, unfathomable airlock. It expands the film, making their week together feel amorphous and eternal. For the viewer this can feel extraordinarily jarring. Aftersun is initially quite diffident and challenging to latch onto, existing in slow, shapeless scenes of almost no sound at all.
As this develops, however, the unconventional approach gradually inverts its intent. Come the other end of the holiday, after good days and bad rendered with quiet naturalism, Calum reaches out more overtly to his daughter. Late-in-the-day olive branches and hopes for the future. Here, the cancelled out ambience suddenly feels like a protective cocoon; Calum and Sophie are secured from the world around them in a bubble of their own experience. They’re bound together in a set of invisible parentheses.
Silence doesn’t dominate throughout. That might’ve been interminable. While Wells has us sink into these spaces with pitted frequency, at other times she instils a sense of life through scattered interactions with other holidaymakers (particularly for Sophie; Calum retains a sense of isolation) and pronounced period specificity through background needle drops (Catatonia, Chumbawumba, Bran Van 3000) and dorky fashion choices (Calum’s tucked in tee). See also the analogue limitations of a very particular kind of boredom that existed pre-WI-FI.
Performances are so naturalistic as to not seem like performances at all. Corio is fresh-faced and unmolded. Wells has drawn from her something genuine which doesn’t fall foul of the kind of exaggerated precociousness one often finds in child stars. Mescal, meanwhile, settles into a deeply humane groove as Calum; both the affable, embarrassing dad and something altogether thornier, selfish and despairing. Downplaying for the sake of Sophie, Calum surprises us in scattered scenes in which he appears alone – technically breaking the rule of Wells’ framing device – where the hidden man is brought within reach of our outstretched fingers, only to be snatched away again. Wells may be colouring outside the margins here, but her reveals are essential to building a sense of dread, especially surrounding a jarring scene of night swimming.
Other tensions manifest. Though it predates her disappearance by a few years, the coming spectre of Madeleine McCann floats in the negative spaces of Aftersun, and Calum’s insistence that Sophie prepares to protect herself comes to feel like Chekov’s gun, belaying some inevitable third act danger. The potential for this quietly ratchets seemingly innocuous moments; a threat of more conventional, palpable drama, the kind ripped from the headlines. Wells’ film doesn’t truly exist in such sensational spaces, but it threatens to. Such anxieties around the margins are discordant echoes of then-present familial fractures and the horrible, predatory world awaiting Sophie.
This kind of patient, observational father/daughter experience can’t help but recall Sofia Coppola’s slow-burn Somewhere from 2010, but Aftersun shares significant essence with a less obvious but vital touchstone; Claire Denis’ brooding requiem Beau Travail. Both refract a relationship through the visor of memory, both evidence a director great at observing bodies. Both, also, present a vision of a third space – be it the mind, a dream world or the afterlife – in which a club dance floor is redefined as a space of spiritual reverie. Here, adult Sophie moves in flickering motion through a crowd where her father – frozen in time – also dances. Their collision feels fraught with the potential for violence, suggestive of greater complexities in their relationship developed outside of the frame of a week’s holiday in Turkey. Sparingly, Wells feathers the sense of existence outside the limits of her film’s 100 minutes.
In keeping, few films of late have caused as much subsequent preoccupation as this one. Aftersun keeps existing, long after the credits roll. It expands like the silences that challenge us. I try not to think about ratings for films while watching them, but what felt like a 5 or a 6 in the moment – that impatience, that unfamiliarity – ratchets up dramatically in the aftermath. As one might well gather from the numerical boldly selected below.
Like a memory itself the film distorts and alters in the aftermath, losing some of its definitions and also gaining new ones. Aftersun comes to feel vital, personal and honest. A fully formed artistic statement and a bound up gift suggesting the arrival of a major new talent within. It is a totem for how we utilise movie-making – both professional and otherwise – to defy time, to capture and keep, to remember and impart to our future selves. Movies are time-capsules of discovery and rediscovery. I suspect this one shall bemuse, befuddle, disarm and quietly destroy viewers. Maybe all at once, like it has me.