​'Aftersun' Is the Bittersweet Slow Burn of the Year

Directed by Charlotte Wells

Starring Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall

Photo courtesy of A24

BY Mila MatveevaPublished Oct 21, 2022

In the first moments of Aftersun, the understated debut feature from writer and director Charlotte Wells, we look into the past through the prism of sweet, often silly but ultimately mysterious camcorder footage. It shows Calum (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year old-daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a summer holiday in Turkey leading up to his 31st birthday. In the present day, Sophie, now an adult (Celia Rowlson-Hall), is seen in a reflection on her television watching the footage. 

Reflections are a storytelling device returned to often in Aftersun, on screens and TVs, and through glass windows, doors and furniture. These visual barriers act like a game of telephone, hinting at the fractured nature of remembering. The details of that week may be warped and who Calum and Sophie are is obscured by time and the fallacy of memory. An illusion is created that the pieces are there to be put together, but Aftersun smartly avoids answers in lieu of the crushing realization that we can never really know another person fully.

What we do know of Calum and Sophie we learn from their interactions with one another and in public with various hotel guests and employees. Calum is goofy, caring and tries to keep things lighthearted, yet the things that go unsaid give him an air of being cryptic and containing a tortured inner world. Though divorced, Calum has a seemingly friendly relationship with Sophie's mom, based on a single phone call we hear. 

Sophie is on the brink of adolescence, still happy to hang out with her father but starting to yearn for her independence and, at times, showing signs that she shares parts of his disposition. The flashbacks softly embed a sense of dread in the hazy vacation afternoons, that become indiscernible from each other: meals, lounging by the pool, dad playfully motivating them into activities, mild moodiness from sharing a room all week. 

There is a feeling that this vacation is the last time they were together. Things are said and occur without drawing attention to themselves and, as the trip draws closer to Calum's birthday, these incidents line up in convenient and underlined ways expected of our memories. Monumental events in adolescence coalesce with burning declarations someone said, colours from a hotel window and music from the radio — did things actually happen this way, or do we conveniently remember things as to make sense of them?

The sound editing and mixing mirror the visuals with refracted music, whether through karaoke versions or bold, impactful covers, along with Oliver Coates's score. The soundtrack solidifies a heightened memory state and often puts us circa 1998; for those of us of a certain age, we had all the same hits on rotation that Sophie is hearing diegetically around the hotel (like All Saints' "Never Ever" and Aqua's "My Oh My"). Notably, many of the songs are duets or feature call-and-response singing. Especially here, pop music grasps onto the subtlest emotions and is a grand, explosive expression of what cannot be said.

Aftersun's power is making the seemingly unremarkable burn quietly until it builds into an emotional sucker punch. Wells does not spell things out; instead, she feels, interprets and uncovers themes using truly cinematic language. This world is a box of ephemera someone left behind, ripe for obsessive scrutiny, remaining unnervingly opaque but comforting in its existence. It's the quickly fading euphoria of someone's scent on an object that leaves you sinking. Aftersun is a story whose chest rises and falls as a love letter to the unknowable.

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