Director Charlotte Wells invents a cinematic language of her own in her stunning directorial debut Aftersun. The film is a dual portrait of a young girl hitting adolescence and her father who is drifting through adulthood. The film is masterfully made, culminating in a powerful crescendo. It is only after the film finishes that you will begin to process the immense melancholy of this story and how it beautifully addresses the way we make and hold onto memories.
Calum (Paul Mescal) is a young father who takes his 11-year-old Sophie (Francesca Corio) on vacation in a resort town in Turkey. Calum is so young that people mistake Sophie for his sister. The film is made up of small vignettes of their time together there. Calum applies sunscreen to Sophies back, they watch the cheesy entertainment the resort has, and they get into some arguments as Sophie pushes Calum to talk about personal things. Intercut with these memories, sometimes shown as old home movies, are flashes of Sophie as an adult (Celia Rowlson-Hall) who is dancing in a club and sees someone who looks like Calum.
Aftersun is one of the year's best movies but it is a film that demands your attention for the power of it to hit. Wells takes a calculated oblique approach to tell the story here. What first feels like a hangout movie shifts into a devastating meditation on the memories we hold onto and the way we see our parents. The low-resolution video footage sprinkled in shows the captured memories but Wells makes clear distinctions between the footage and Sophie's memories, even the moments where she fills in the gaps.
In one of the film's most revealing moments, Sophie asks her dad if this is what he saw himself doing when he was her age. The question quietly devastates Calum. This is his 31st birthday, a day he says he never thought would come. The future seems uncertain and even a bit terrifying for Calum. Sophie can't process his depression at the moment but the film's structure lets us know she is processing it as an adult. Calum is often short in reflections or obscured by things in the foreground that further suggest that Sophie only knew a small part of what was going on with her dad. Wells seems to be visualizing the moment when you comprehend your parents as people and not just as parents. Sophie is realizing Calum is a person with an internal life that she will never fully know.
Sophie is played with such natural ease by Corio. It never feels like a performance which adds to the overall illusion that we are reliving someone's memories. Mescal is devasting as the charming but haunted Calum. Their natural chemistry together is one of the many magical elements of Aftersun.
Wells fills the movie with tiny details that help us build a full picture of what is going on. Adult Sophie is in a relationship with a woman and they have a young baby. We see a brief engagement young Sophie has with a girl that may lay the seeds for her queer identity years later. We see Calum practice tai chi often, a sign of his search for inner peace. There are hundreds of these details sprinkled throughout Aftersun that build to a stunning emotional climax. Queen's Under Pressure has never been used like this before, soundtracking the final moments to devastating effect.
Aftersun is simply a recreation of a specific memory but a film about the way we process and hold onto memories. It is about how we reconcile the experiences we have as children with our parents once we are adults. Adult Sophie is trying to reach across time to let he father know she wants to understand him. She thinks she does but Aftersun is brave enough to show us that you can never truly know someone, but trying to is worth it.