|writer/director Charlotte Wells|
|Wells with actor Paul Mescal|
|Wells with actors Paul Mescal and Frankie Coro|
|Wells on vacation with her father as a child|
AFTERSUN B+ Great Britain USA (102 mi) 2022 d: Charlotte Wells
There’s a feeling that when you leave where you are from that you don’t totally belong there again. —Calum (Paul Mescal) responds to Sophie’s question asking if he would ever return to Scotland
Listed at # 1 from The 50 best films of 2022 | Sight and Sound - BFI, #1 from The 25 Best Movies of 2022 | IndieWire, #2 from The 10 Best Movies of 2022 | TIME, and #3 from Best Films of 2022 - Film Comment, the film premiered with an 8:30 am screening at Cannes with the director introducing her film by describing it as “all of my dreams, my past and present, my hopes, fears and ambitions on a 50-foot screen,” given a two-minute standing ovation afterwards, winning the Jury Prize in Critics’ Week, and has had a profound effect on audiences since then, receiving near universal praise, becoming something of a film festival favorite. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland with a Masters from Oxford, Wells attended the NYU film school with the intentions of becoming a producer, yet she was inspired by the largely independent filmmakers she discovered, a literal potpourri of international cinema, like Jacques Audiard, Alejandro González Iñarritu, the Dardenne brothers, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Kelly Reichardt, or Claire Denis, where her short films caught the eye of Adele Romanski, one of the partners of the Barry Jenkins production company Pastel, which ushered this film into the festival circuit, drawing parallels with Jenkins own film 2016 Top Ten List #1 Moonlight, as both are evocative looks at adolescents coming to terms with the adult world. Expressions of a very personalized style of filmmaking, this moody, coming-of-age film exists almost exclusively in the attentive mindset of a bubbly 11-year old child, Sophie (Frankie Coro, a revelation who steals the show), seen on a sun-drenched summer vacation during the late 1990’s with her father Calum, Paul Mescal, from Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (2022), becoming a father-daughter drama largely told through camcorder recordings, continually capturing moments that they spent together in Ölüdeniz, part of the turquoise coast of Southwestern Turkey where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean Sea, and at one point, completely out of the blue, she remarks, “I think it’s nice that we share the same sky.” A riff on Éric Rohmer’s A Summer's Tale (Conte d'été) (1996) or Sofia Coppola’s fractured father-daughter exposé Somewhere (2010), the oblique narrative style unfolds in an impressionist mosaic of the passing of time, blending real-time experiences with video footage, which can obscure certain underlying details that come into play, which a young child might not have noticed, instead reflecting her rather scatterbrained view of the world, where she is largely the center of the universe, yet it’s also an age when you start to see your parents differently than before. Ostensibly a subjective memory piece, the kind of film that probably took a lifetime to make, an essential underlying component is how time reconfigures memory with a deceptive power. Expressed through a series of flashback recollections which have shifted over time, viewed differently as one matures, Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) is seen twenty years later looking back at the video footage with adult eyes, seeing things she was completely unaware of at the time, where haunting and even disturbing emotional patterns exist under the surface, revealing her father to be much more troubled than she suspected, shrouded under a dark shadow of melancholy, perhaps hoping to fill the existential void by bringing along books on meditation and Tai Chi, including Scottish poet and filmmaker Margaret Tait, where one can find traces of BLUE BLACK PERMANENT (1992). A repeated glimpse of paragliders over the bay conveys the notion of freedom that is as possible as it is impossible. Shot on 35mm by cinematographer Gregory Oke, who she met at film school, also bringing along another fellow student in editor Blair McClendon, both of whom are intrinsically linked to the overall style of the film, resembling the visual poetry of Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s MORVERN CALLAR (2002), an exquisitely crafted montage of a film, and a haunting expression of grief and personal loss, as these same elements creep into this film as well, with a pronounced influence from the snapshot images of Ramsay’s short film GASMAN (1997), Lynne Ramsay's 1970s Christmas in Scotland - YouTube (14:18), a fascinating glimpse at how parents play a role in shaping the identity of their children. Thematically, this may actually evolve out of her first NYU student short, a wonderfully sensual expression of personal loss that similarly leaves out pertinent details, Tuesday - Charlotte Wells (2015), YouTube (11:04).
While the film is intensely personal, Wells has had to fend off suggestions that it is autobiographical, contending it is a work of fiction, though it plays out onscreen like the recorded diary of Sophie’s observations, where it becomes difficult to decipher whether we are watching things as they happened or how they are being remembered. Speaking personally, one major turnoff is the selfie-like obsession with taking pictures of themselves, something that the social media age has also become obsessed with, exhibiting a kind of narcissistic, self-flattery that some may find off-putting, though camcorders were definitely all the rage in the 1990's, previously explored in Super 8 (2011), the J. J. Abrams tribute to Spielberg, where the playfulness of kids also intermingles with the darker world of adults. Everything in the film is seen from the point of view of Sophie, reflecting things she’s most interested in, not only moments shared with her Dad, but also her budding sexuality, aroused by a curiosity at being with older teens around her who drink and flirt, while the images of her father always find him partially obscured or out of view, where these reflections also reveal her perspective, where something about him is always missing or concealed. Looking back at the video footage, what the older Sophie is looking for are clues of his own narrative, like acknowledging he was a neglected child, and never felt comfortable in his own skin, dreaming of a larger house outside London where Sophie could have her own room, yet he inevitably struggled with financial difficulties, but did not want Sophie to think less of him as a father, leaving her with an overriding sense of guilt that she was unable to read the tea leaves at the time, and that her father had to protect her from his darker impulses. The seaside resort where they’re staying seems centered around the pool, viewed as a kind of vacationer’s paradise with plenty of activities, including scuba diving and sea excursions, which all must seem enthralling in the eyes of a young child, but we also notice the resort itself is rather run-down, with construction work taking place on the premises, more reminiscent of an amusement park, an artificially constructed illusory world, yet this packaged holiday catering to British tourism is probably typical of what Europeans encounter when booking vacations in exotic locales, as it’s hardly upscale, with plenty of Brits hanging around the pool, establishing their own community away from home where everyone mysteriously speaks English. Her Dad encourages her to introduce herself to other kids, but neither one socializes that much, keeping to themselves, and when they do branch out it’s often met with an unexpected resistance, as the boys playing water polo pretty much ignore Sophie, where she’s lost on an island with nowhere to go. Yet when left on her own, she’s amazingly resilient, establishing a rapport with another boy at a game arcade, while Calum appears more distressed in his time alone, reduced to tears from inexplicable circumstances, where the film never delves into their family background other than to indicate Sophie lives with her mother in Scotland, while Calum resides in London, with Sophie harboring a wish that they’d be reunited. Calum practices Tai Chi to help keep his mercurial emotions in check, often swaying to his own internal rhythms that Sophie finds amusing, while we also see them applying sunscreen by the pool, filming each other underwater, or take on a few teenage boys playing pool, Aftersun | I'm Her Dad Though, Actually | Official Clip HD | A24 YouTube (53 seconds). Anyone who has witnessed single fathers on holiday with separated children will recognize the sadness that exists even in the fun, often appearing awkward, trying a little bit too hard to forge genuine connections while masking their real feelings, as they simply don’t see them as often as they’d like, left in an emotional limbo. For the most part they look happy and content, developing an easy rapport, yet an underlying sense of dread often intrudes, where you sense something terrible is about to happen, using the conventions of horror films, like when Sophie loses an expensive diving mask and Calum heads into the deep after it, unsuccessfully, regretting her mistake immediately, or when he goes scuba diving and Sophie stares at the water’s placid surface waiting for him to come up, where we have no sense of time, or how long she’s been waiting, or even if he’ll ever come up. These moments are more suggestive than real, and may have a more profound effect on viewers than it did to either of them at the time, yet this element is carefully interwoven into the film.
Part of the beauty of the film is the ambiguity involved, how it is layered in subtexts, creating a quiet unease even as there are wandering shots of sunny relaxation, with our pair of protagonists drifting in the enjoyment of spending time together, where over a relatively short period of time we get to know them well, yet one can’t help but be struck by how there’s no lengthy conversations, probably the shortest of any film in recent memory, typically reduced to ten words or less, which can be weirdly disaffecting, yet this may reflect a hidden anxiety and how emotionally guarded Calum is. As the older Sophie looks back at these memories, she’s caught up in the fact that something’s missing, something she undoubtedly failed to comprehend as it was happening, yet that adds to the abstraction of the film, as there are missing pieces, suggesting memories change over time, and that there’s no definitive understanding, only clues that can be deciphered in completely different ways. This disorientation is telegraphed by the style of the film itself, jumping back and forth in time, edited with an exquisitely constructed style that intentionally leaves out certain information, becoming a puzzle piece viewers have to navigate on their own. One thing we never question is the closeness of the characters, as the love on display is unequivocal, yet their inner lives unfold in mysterious ways, as Calum is clearly unhappy with himself, where impoverished is too harsh a word, but he’s unable to provide for his daughter in a way he’d like, probably blaming himself, finding themselves second-class guests in an all-inclusive resort where others are more economically privileged, and while this is clearly a factor in their lives (we see them skip out of a dinner bill), it becomes glaringly exposed in a pivotal moment. Sophie wants them to go onstage to sing karaoke together in front of the guests in the audience, but Calum doesn’t feel confident enough to sing publicly, and maybe he’s already had too much to drink, so she angrily defies his reticence and rushes onstage, hoping he would join her, singing an off-key yet heartbreaking version of R.E.M,’s Losing My Religion that feels excruciating and tortuous, as her once invigorated spirit is crushed by a wave of self-consciousness, yet there’s no turning back, Losing My Religion - Aftersun (2022) YouTube (2:15). Something about the performance triggers an emotional response from Calum, with the song itself hinting at his state of mind, yet it’s very subtle and hard to read, as if realizing for the first time that things may never be the same. Afterwards, when he offers to pay for singing lessons, if she wants, an already upset Sophie grows indignant, offended that he’s inferring she’s a terrible singer, which he denies, but then angrily hits him where it hurts, “Stop offering to pay for something when I know you don’t have the money!” Stunned by the remark, Calum is utterly devastated, returning back to the room alone, and what follows only adds to the perplexing intrigue of the film, with Calum seen striding across the beach at night, stepping directly into the waves totally dressed, where we quickly lose sight of him as the sound of the waves dramatically increases, making it seem like the waves have completely consumed him, as we’re left with an extended shot of endlessly lapping waves, reminiscent of Sterling Hayden in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) or Bruce Dern in Hal Ashby’s COMING HOME (1978). Uncertainty is a crucial element built into the film, reflecting Sophie’s own uncertainties about herself, as she’s still growing into herself, on the cusp of adolescence, yet still a child, where the film is really her film, and even as she studies this footage years later, trying to piece together her own memories with what the camcorder reveals, something still eludes her, and will likely haunt her for the rest of her life. The most emotionally gripping moment comes near the end from a dance sequence set to the Freddie Mercury and David Bowie version of Under Pressure, Aftersun (2022) - Last Dance / "Under Pressure" Scene 4k YouTube (3:01), which transitions into strobe-lit footage from a crowded club, where you notice a time alteration from the change in his attire, so this is clearly not in sequence, yet it plays out this way in her mind, where the oscillation effect obscures what we see, becoming a masterclass of film editing that is perfectly in sync with the music and lyrics, with images fading into and out of the light, suggesting the truth that she’s seeking will never be illuminated. With the discovery that a door has closed that won’t ever open again (the director’s own father died when she was a teenager), the film reveals how memory and cinema are inextricably linked, while also reflecting Sophie’s own emotional journey, where love and happiness are mixed with grief and frustration, and the pain of lost time.
Laps - Charlotte Wells short student film, 2017, YouTube (5:51)
Blue Christmas - Charlotte Wells final short student film, 2017, YouTube (15:24)