101 minutes, rated M
Aftersun is the much-lauded debut feature of Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells, who lives in New York, where she studied film at NYU. She does what an ambitious film-maker on debut should do: she breaks nearly all the rules, especially the one that says film is a medium of action, of doing.
Almost nothing happens in Aftersun, or at least, nothing unusual. An 11-year-old girl called Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her father Calum (Paul Mescal) spend a fortnight at a Turkish resort, somewhere by the sea. They swim, they eat, they lie in the sun. Sophie is bright and funny, yearning to experience what the older girls are experiencing – boys and kissing and drinking alcohol.
Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her father Calum (Paul Mescal) in Aftersun.Credit:
Calum is solicitous, affectionate, reserved. He tries to teach her self-defence, worrying about the dangers that lie ahead. One day, they visit an old Greek amphitheatre and smear themselves with volcanic mud. That’s a high point for excitement. Then it’s over and Sophie goes back to her mother, who’s separated from her father. Odd then that the film leaves you with a sense of loss and pain that’s quite profound. How did Wells do that?
The story is autobiographical, although story seems a strong word – this is more like a fragment from childhood, an attempt to reconcile memory with a sense of loss. Choosing this sort of rhythm for your debut film is crazy brave. It goes against every trend. It’s not quite daring to be dull, so much as different.
Wells forces us to look harder for the undercurrents and nuances, as she methodically sets up patterns of repetition, almost like poetry. This gives us a strong sense of Sophie’s state of mind, her sponge-like absorption of everything. She may not be able to interpret all she sees and hears, but she doesn’t miss a thing.
Even then, Wells does not give us pearls, simply questions. Calum is troubled by something, but Sophie does not know what. Twenty years later, a grown-up Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), watches digital footage she shot during the vacation, searching for clues. These are unresolved. We are left to speculate, riffling through images with her – simply wondering.
It won’t be everyone’s cuppa chai but so what? If we don’t have room for risk-takers, for the films that challenge and perplex us, then we lose the place of invention, the space for something new. And if you are prepared to risk everything on your first feature, you are honouring the gods of film.
Somehow, without its effects becoming obvious, Wells brings us to the gravity of what she is remembering. The accumulation of small details builds a strong sense of who these characters are. We feel Calum’s pain, even if we don’t know what ails him.
The last moments offer a dam burst of mysterious emotion powerful enough to sweep away the earlier doubts. Corio is nominated for best actor at the coming Oscars. A poll of 90 critics by Sight and Sound named this the best film of 2022.
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