By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Charlotte Wells
- Starring Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Brooklyn Toulson, Celia Rowlson-Hall
In the back third of Aftersun, Calum and Sophie, our father-daughter duo of leads, take a picture while at a restaurant during their vacation. It’s clearly the late 90s-early 2000s – though the time period is a little ambiguous outside of that – as the man who takes their photograph uses a Polaroid camera that slowly lets the picture fade in overtime. The camera lingers on that for quite some time, enough so that the image eventually comes into focus after a little bit. But by the time it does, that picture is nothing but a memory past, destined to fade away into blurry, distant haze.
Aftersun itself is a lot like that distant, blurry haze. About the unknowable truth of one’s own parents and the things left unsaid. The film only gives us a small glimpse into the lives of these two individuals, and yet we can formulate a lot from very little. Calum has a broken wrist, likely from working at whatever new job he’s currently found himself in. He practices tai chi and has books on dealing with anxiety, and has trouble sleeping. He’s separated (or divorced, it’s unclear as well if they were ever actually married) at 31, and clearly had Sophie very young. And he loves her a lot, but also clearly feels the pressure of raising a daughter he seemingly barely gets to see.
Sophie, on the other hand, is energetic, funny, and doesn’t seem to really understand her father’s plight. She has own journey here, mostly one of self-discovery as she forms a quasi-romance with a boy while on vacation. But when she asks her father “what did you wanna do when you were 11”, he can’t answer and refuses to. Sophie, instinctually, knows something is up – kids are perceptive and smarter then we think, after all – but can’t really put it into words, and it happens again when she says to him along the lines of “I know you can’t afford these things”.
But Aftersun really isn’t about the events on screen in the moment, but in reality it’s about Sophie in future, as a 31-year-old mother with a wife and a young baby herself, trying desperately to understand what her father was like and what he was going through at the time. What begins as happy memories quickly turn melancholic to downright devastating, and the reality of what sets in is all too clear. You are never ready for the last time you see your parents, hell let alone anybody, but when the last time does come it’s always unexpected, almost out of nowhere.
Frankie Corio, in her debut film role, is a goddamn revelation, so flawlessly inhabiting the world and space she’s in that she might as well just have been plucked off the streets and put into the film as a non-actor. Corio’s chemistry with Paul Mescal in particular is sublime, and they bicker occasionally but there is a real love and affection between the two that makes everything far more devastating then it would be otherwise. But in reality, it’s Mescal who steals the show with a devastating, quiet, tender, and ultimately moving performance as a father out of his depth and maybe even a little neglectful just trying to do his best in spite of it all. A sequence where he just breaks down in quiet pain, with the camera turned to his back, tells you everything without doing a whole lot, and the film makes it abundantly clear that something happened to Calum without really making it a large focus.
What the thing ended up being ultimately doesn’t matter. He walks out one night on Sophie, gets drunk, and then goes out to sea, and the loud, almost deafening sound design on the waves initially indicates he possibly drowned, but we find him in Sophie’s bed, passed out soon after from the drunken swim. When Sophie and Calum begin dancing together and film flashes between the images of Sophie’s adult self and her father trying reach other in a rave before pulling away from each other and Calum is forever lost in the darkness.
Wells’ framing of the camera in these moments, mostly thanks to Gregory Oaks’ masterful cinematography, culminates in a final image so evocative, so heartbreaking that it’s difficult to pull out of your mind. The film’s transitions are almost entirely based around a dreamlike quality, putting into emphasis the memory elements of the film and lingering on singular moments as if to say what moments stood out to Sophie the most.
And that’s the ultimate beauty of Aftersun‘s quiet brilliance and slow burn approach. It’s one of the most emotionally taxing films of the past year, and also is one of the most heartfelt and honest. It’s hard to pick another film this year that manages to hit all of these beats as effortlessly in a debut like this – one of the best of the year.