‘Aftersun’ review: Charlotte Wells’ piercing debut film

A strange thing happened to me recently at a press screening of Aftersun, a beautifully crafted and quietly harrowing first feature film by Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells. While jotting down a few stray thoughts and details, I turned a page in my notebook and came across a drawing, something my 6-year-old daughter had scrawled in bright orange crayon. That wasn’t strange in and of itself; Notebooks are passed around at home like bags of crisps. But it was the first time that the discovery of their handwork, usually a cute and funny mid-screen distraction, had the effect of nudged me closer to the two characters in front of me – who, as you might not be surprised, a are girl and her father.

My apologies for the indulgent personal intro, something I only allowed myself because the process of sifting through personal luggage — including the scribbled notes and stray memorabilia left for us by our loved ones — lends itself to what Wells is doing himself , feels entirely relevant. Aftersun, which hit theaters after an acclaimed festival series that began this year in Cannes, the director calls an “emotionally autobiographical” work inspired by her memories of a summer vacation she and her father took together in the ’90s spent. It is a memento and as such a reflection on how memories can be at once indelible and inaccurate, how they can torment and desert us and yet be the most precious – maybe even the only – thing we have left.

From the opening moments, rendered in the grainy textures of camcorder footage, Wells reveals the patient, methodical act of sifting and sorting, of peering intensely into the past. But then suddenly the past comes into focus with a shimmering, almost hyperreal clarity. The sun beats down on the pools and lounge chairs at a budget resort in Turkey, where 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her single father Calum (Paul Mescal), in their mid-thirties, come here for a late summer vacation. The hotel isn’t much — the stickiness of the furniture in the lobby, speaking of memories, will imprint on your retinas — but Sophie and Calum put up with most of their setbacks and disappointments. You have the easy adaptability of two people who are naturally easygoing and unassuming and, as it quickly turns out, a little disoriented in each other’s company.

A guy and a girl are dancing in a field with low mountains in the background

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in the movie Aftersun.

(A24)

Sophie lives in Scotland with her mother (never seen); Calum lives in the UK This Mediterranean getaway is thus a rare attempt to make up for lost time, but also carries an unmistakable sense of farewell. This impression may well be misleading; the future of Sophie and Calum’s relationship, if any, remains unexplored. But something is clearly slipping away here, most obviously Sophie’s childhood, which can almost be seen disappearing down the abyss of early adolescence. It’s not just the attention she draws from the boys at the hotel, or the mixture of fascination, envy and quiet skepticism with which she regards the teenage couple making out by the pool. It’s that her entire way of seeing her young, emotionally and geographically distant father until now — as an unpredictable but benevolent presence, more of a goofy older brother figure than a paternal authority — is about to change and possibly disappear.

Corio, an amazing discovery, somehow conveys these and countless other pinprick impressions without putting them into words. There is a startling lucidity to her performance, a willingness to let emotion flow through it gently and easily, befitting the unhurried grace and care of filmmaking. Much of the story’s meaning can be easily guessed from the interplay of Gregory Oke’s cinematography and Blair McClendon’s editing, the way the film cuts mid-conversation between and around Calum and Sophie, persistently framing the scene in a way that’s new and fresh that hints at the workings of memory itself. At times, the off-center compositions, resort setting, and exquisitely detailed sound design—every ripple of pool water and hiss of Turkish steam crystal clear—reminded me of Lucrecia Martel’s coming-of-age drama “The Holy Girl”. his ability to convey psychological interiority through atmosphere.

Like Martel, Wells knows the power of narrative elision: Aftersun may be a feature-length flashback, but apart from a few lyrical framing elements, its story unfolds in a spare, self-contained present tense. Apart from a friendly, mostly inaudible phone call from Calum to Sophie’s mother, we learn nothing about their long-lost relationship. And we learn only vague details about the recent accident that shattered Calum’s wrist, aside from the sight of his forearm in a cast – an image of little dramatic importance but huge metaphorical importance. A cloak of sadness hangs over Calum, despite the warmth of his sweet, boyish smile and the strength coursing through his body.

A girl in a yellow shirt smiles

Frankie Corio in the movie Aftersun.

(A24)

The restrained but intense physicality of Mescal’s performance finds intermittent relaxation as Calum practices his tai chi moves or, in a sudden release of all inhibitions, freaks out on the dance floor. But the actor, as distinct here as he has been in his recent supporting roles in The Lost Daughter and God’s Creatures, can point to a deep, incipient agony with an image as simple as Calum smoking a restless cigarette on the balcony point out Sophie is sleeping. For all his easy-going demeanor, he also tends to shut down without warning, invariably when Sophie needs him most, and feel guilt afterwards that’s all the more terrifying because she’s so quick to forgive. A scene in which Calum leaves Sophie to stumble through a solo karaoke performance seems to distill it all — youthful awkwardness, parental abandonment, a rift that seems to widen in every direction.

The song Sophie is singing at that moment is REM’s “Losing My Religion,” one of several ’90s hits that twirl through a movie with an unerring musical ear for the moment. (Blur’s moody Britpop “Tender” marks that moment as 1999; the Macarena craze is still raging.) But if Wells has put together a perfect evocation of a highly specific chapter — the end of a millennium, and possibly something else — if deliberately breaking with realism, this gently aching film achieves an overwhelming emotional power.

At times she flashes forward briefly, showing us an older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) in her own early stages of parenthood. Sometimes she shows us the accumulated relics of that long-gone vacation—an intricately woven rug, a faded Polaroid, a postcard message that’s as painfully sincere as it is stiflingly inappropriate. And finally, in startling bursts of strobed abstraction, she gives us the recurring image of Calum dancing in a faraway nightclub, lost in himself and perhaps lost to her forever. There is mystery in this picture, but also revelation and, surprisingly, recognition. As Wells has noted, “Aftersun” isn’t exactly her story, and barring personal associations, it’s not yours or mine either. And yet, in those moments, it feels unspeakable and unmistakable for reasons as hard to articulate as to shake off.

‘After Sun’

Rated: R, for some speech and brief sexual material

Duration: 1 hour, 36 minutes

To play: Begins October 21 at AMC Burbank 16; AMC Century City 15

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-10-20/aftersun-review-charlotte-wells-paul-mescal ‘Aftersun’ review: Charlotte Wells’ piercing debut film

Sarah Ridley

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