AFTERSUN. One of the best movies of the year

Best holidays ever.

Maja Budka

20 November 2022

This will be a review full of admiration. Although it was not born immediately. While watching the film, so many emotions accumulated in me that it took me a while to digest and analyze them. Now I know that Aftersun is a beautiful film. It shows little, but conveys a great deal.

Aftersun is the feature-length debut (!) of Charlotte Wells. The Scottish-born woman’s body of work includes only one short film. This fact makes me even more amazed by the maturity, sincerity, multidimensionality of her latest production. This film is personal to the point of pain and certainly bears the hallmarks of autobiography.

It is difficult to tell unequivocally what Aftersun is about. And I don’t know if telling it makes sense in the case of this film. Staying on the surface, it’s the story of a young, 30-year-old father and his 12-year-old daughter who vacation in a cheap Turkish resort in the late 1990s. However, the idyllic landscapes, the rolling sea, the lazy afternoons are memories that Sophie, now grown up, draws to the surface in her memory, watching footage from that time years later. As a grown woman, she decides to remember the happiest moments she shared with her father.

The two rather enjoy their vacation together. They swim, snorkel, eat ice cream and enjoy the typical resort entertainment. They get the most out of each other’s presence without being able to be with each other every day. Calum tries at all costs to cover up the loathing he feels for himself, but his daughter understands and reads him more accurately than he might expect.

Occasional frictions are natural elements of the father-adolescent daughter relationship. They do not bear the hallmarks of traumatic or toxic behavior. However, there is something important hiding under the surface. Alongside fleeting vacation memories, Wells inserts scenes that are like mismatched puzzle pieces, flashbacks. The situations that play out between the time the camera is turned off and back on are mysterious, out of context, full of understatements. However, they tell us more about the complicated relationship between father and daughter than colorful holiday postcards.

However, as little as possible should be said about this film. Aftersun is received subliminally. I realize how artificial and over-the-top this may sound, but the film is better likened to an experience, a cinematic experience than a mere screening. Almost nothing, of the utmost importance, happens here literally, overtly, directly. The main materials from which Wells creates his picture are impressions, fleeting emotions, salvaged memories, home videos. Calum and Sophie’s relationship is bracketed. We learn about the emotions inherent in them mainly by reading between the lines. It’s a very dreamy film, at times putting you in a trance, intriguing with beautifully picturesque frames. That’s because Wells is trying to capture the intangible here. However, I’m immensely pleased that such a risky film experiment as Aftersun came off so well and so beautifully.

Wells brilliantly handles the growing anxiety, depicting idyllic vacation images, into which, however, a sense of dread, of tension, as if something is hanging in the air and about to detonate, mercilessly seeps in. At certain points the film could even be accused of being a thriller. However, nothing groundbreaking, violating the dreamy static nature of the film happens. What’s most important is read out from instant gestures, glances, words thrown carelessly, as if from the blue, which nevertheless have a huge emotional charge in them. They slip by unnoticed, but in fact they put the whole story into a tremor that is like an imperceptible earthquake. There are scenes at which one wants to stop for a longer time, analyze, figure out what the other bottom is. However, the film relies not on lengthy analysis, but on sincere immediate sensations.

Charlotte Wells’ debut is a film about repressed emotions that find no outlet. Therefore, not much happens in the film, which may be tedious for many viewers. Wells took a difficult path. She decided to bracket what is most important for the reception of her story, not showing, only suggesting. However, those who become absorbed in the story will very clearly feel the pain, fear, immense longing and immense love that well up from beneath the surface and evaporate from the characters of Calum and Sophie, but are never expressed directly.

Aftersun is an attempt at a cinematic confrontation between an adult daughter and her father, whom, although those dozen years ago she could not fully understand, she now understands far more strongly. It is an attempt to account for their shared past. A beautiful and tender attempt to reach shreds of memories and feelings for the now absent parent. There comes a point in every adult’s life when we begin to understand our parents more and see them as people who are part of the bigger picture. People who didn’t come into the world the moment we were born. Sophie, who has just become a parent herself, is just realizing this, and Aftersun is her journey through these fascinating and tender reflections. That’s why this film touches everyone differently.

Aftersun is also a unique and painfully honest portrayal of parenthood in contemporary cinema. This is possible not only thanks to Wells’ dexterity, but equally thanks to the magnetic duo of actors Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio. With their help, the nuanced relationship between father and daughter resonates so well on screen. Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure, on the other hand, will never sound the same again.

Maja Budka

Maja Budka

I write about film and art with a cat on the keyboard. I like animation and films lined with gentle absurdity.

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