Beauty, memory and tragedy collide in Scottish writer and director Charlotte Wells’ debut feature film “Aftersun.” Starring Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio, “Aftersun” documents a summer vacation at a Turkish resort that 11-year-old Sophie (Corio) spends with her father, Calum (Mescal).
The film begins with a shot from a camcorder where Sophie asks Calum, “When you were 11, what did you think you’d be doing now?” Calum responds with silence, looking at Sophie with a face impossible to read but a stance that almost conveys disappointment. The scene transitions with eerie music to darkness. Occasional flashes of bright white light reveal a woman in a crowd of people dancing around her. These two cryptic opening scenes succeed in building intrigue and giving viewers a sense that something is wrong – a feeling that lurks in the background throughout the film.
Most of the film is spent waiting anxiously for something huge to happen, but it never does. Midway through “Aftersun,” it is revealed that its story is being viewed in retrospect by a 31-year-old Sophie through old camcorder footage of the vacation. What you’ve been waiting for – that huge moment – has already been happening the entire movie.
“Aftersun” strikes a perfect balance, consisting of mostly subtlety with occasional bursts of overwhelming emotion. It’s the way Sophie tends to focus on couples in love on the vacation or Calum’s facial expression after Sophie gets everyone around to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to him. But it’s also how Calum viscerally cries when he knows Sophie isn’t around.
“Aftersun” captures the same complex swell of emotions that occurs when you see one of your parents cry for the first time – that horrible realization when their mask of strength slips off and you see their vulnerability.
Although this movie is drenched in melancholy, there are moments of beauty to be found. When Calum and Sophie are laying together by the pool, Sophie says, “I think it’s nice that we share the same sky.” When Calum asks what she means, she replies, “Well, like sometimes at playtime, I look up to the sky, and if I can see the sun, then I think about the fact that we can both see the sun. So, even though we’re not actually in the same place, and we’re not actually together, we kind of are in a way, you know?” This scene effortlessly reveals Sophie’s personality and deepens the relationship between father and daughter.
While the film operates as a slow burn, patient viewers are greatly rewarded. On the last night of the vacation, Sophie and Calum dance together to Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” an emotionally potent scene and one that since watching, has become one of my personal favorite uses of music in any film.
The film’s devastating final shot provides viewers with no answers except for the knowledge that Sophie and Calum’s relationship will never be the same.
“Aftersun” is a stunning feature debut from Charlotte Wells. Corio and Mescal’s effortless performances perfectly capture the dynamic relationship between a father and a daughter. Despite telling a story on a much smaller scale than many of the other great movies released in 2022, “Aftersun” is no less powerful.