Director: Charlotte Wells
Talent: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio
Release Date: November 18
Any conversation can be revelatory if you pay attention. Small talk, quips, flights of fancy are all signifiers of deep-seated feelings.
Aftersun’s premise is a commonplace situation: a young father and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie holidaying in a Turkish resort. Charlotte Wells’s enviably accomplished yet singular debut boasts the formal daring of an untried filmmaker – VHS camcorder footage is interposed into the narrative; Blur’s Tender is slowed down to a crawl like warping VHS. An intriguing framing device is established early: a woman smiling – remembering the holiday? – in a discotheque being bathed in strobe light. This liminal space, a poetic abstraction, will be a recurring motif.
Elsewhere, Wells’s naturalistic scenes have a free-associative, meandering quality consistent with the languid, randomness of a package holiday. But seemingly inconsequential exchanges pay dividends later.
There’s no obvious problem at the centre of Aftersun, no major conflict requiring resolution, except for maybe in the meta sense of art grappling with the past. Still, Calum’s life is obviously no fairytale. Separated from Sophie’s mother, he lives in penury.
When Calum and Sophie play pool against two adolescents, the teens mistake Calum for being Sophie’s brother. Paul Mescal is brilliant here. It’s initially jarring how fresh-faced he is – Mescal is four years Calum’s junior – but it underscores Callum’s callowness. He’s not exactly a fully realised adult – wearing a cast, he forgets how he broke his wrist. But Calum does his best, as he struggles to keep a large reservoir of pain at bay.
Sophie too has unacknowledged depths. She furtively eavesdrops on teenagers’ dalliances, her sexuality burgeoning. Something’s ignited in her that she doesn’t fully understand yet. Her idle chitchat with Calum sometimes elucidates her subterranean concerns. But mostly, Sophie enjoys her holiday.
Enigmatic Calum’s utterances hint at deeper wounds; his unwillingness to discuss certain things speaks volumes. He’s uncomfortable when Sophie interviews him with the camcorder about where he saw himself at 30 when he was 11. Their playful dialogue searches for an answer to a question they haven’t even realised they’ve asked. Calum demurs from exploring Sophie’s feelings when she expresses some standard, fleeting sadness. Does he fear some genetic destiny is at play? Many such subtly telling moments arise. Rich with implication, this restrained, relatively plotless film resists spelling things out.
A good holiday is a sanctuary from life’s constricting plotlines. Calum’s sorrow is mostly kept out of the picture. As protector, one’s candour is sacrificed. You can’t bare your soul as much as you hope your child will. Children nevertheless intuit moods, so even though Sophie mightn’t have fully grasped Calum’s burden, adult Sophie will later reappraise her memories and see them in a new light.
Calum is intent on his daughter having a great holiday, and she does, but darkness, both literal and figurative, isn’t far off, threatening to subsume this sunny frame – a scene of night swimming seems a portent.
The film’s bravura final sequence is a spine tingling confluence of the film’s timelines. Calum and Sophie’s parting seems casual as though they’ll meet again, but then we realise why a fairly ordinary holiday is the object of such intense inquiry. For these scenes are being poured over by someone in the future who’s scouring them for hidden meaning that can help her come to terms with the past. We are overcome with emotion at the inevitable realisation staring us in the face. This autobiographical film’s coyness actually ends up being its biggest strength and you realise you’ve been feeling what was unsaid all along. Powerful stuff.
Illustration: Ethan Smyth