Review: Aftersun

Charlotte Wells’ debut feature uses nostalgia to interrogate the fraught relationship between a 31-year-old father, Calum (Paul Mescal), and his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio). The bulk of the film takes place in the late 90s during a vacation in Turkey that may have been the last time Sophie saw Calum, a situation suggested by the way Wells occasionally shifts the time frame to Sophie as she turns the same age her father did during their brief sojourn on the Turkish coast. Wells uses camcorder footage to provide immediacy and sun-drenched evidentiary visuals that Sophie in her adult form can use to help her remember those precious days she spent with her father, but the movie is for the most part cinematically presented—diligently composed and framed to explore the emotional contours of the vacation. The audience is complicit in Sophie’s search for clues as to why things turned out the way they did, even if we aren’t in on what exactly did happen.

Through carefully sequenced dialogue we come to learn that Calum and Sophie’s mother have been estranged for some time, if, in fact, they were ever together at all. Calum appears now to have a male partner, and left Edinburgh, where Sophie and her mother live, to escape some painful memory. He doesn’t have much money—a source of some humorous friction between the two—but does lay down a sizable sum of cash for a Turkish rug at one point. The source of his occasional descents into sullen contemplation, petulance, and, at one point, a jag of isolated sobbing that is painful to watch, are never revealed outright, though Sophie’s questions sometimes elicit more information than she expects, as when she asks him what he did on his 11th birthday and he reluctantly answers that his parents forgot all about it. 

The movie doesn’t dwell on Calum’s suffering but strongly suggests it while outlining Sophie’s difficulties in facing maturity—hanging out with older, more jaded Britons in the somewhat cheesy resort where they’re staying, getting her first kiss from a shy kid she meets at the game arcade, and trying without success to leave behind childish things. One of the more brilliant touches is the infantile tone she assumes when she’s the object of the camcorder’s gaze, immediately reverting to a mock cynical preteen attitude when the red light is off. In contrast, Calum falls into tai-chi moves whenever he’s at a loss for something to do, indicating that his interest in Eastern ideas is more therapeutic than anything else. And while Aftersun accumulates a great deal of sadness as it progresses, the heartbreak it arrives at has an exhilirating air about it, best characterized by adult Sophie’s hallucinations of she and Calum sharing a dance floor in a strobe-illuminated club. Whatever it was that befell Calum, I don’t feel sorry for these two. If anything, I envy them the deepness of their love for each other. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakcho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Aftersun home page in Japanese

photo (c) Turkish Riviera Run Club Limited, British Broadcasting Corporation, The British Film Institute & Tango 2022

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