Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 6th, 2022
Aftersun (Charlotte Wells, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.
The halcyon days of childhood can glow with increasing brightness the older we get, their nostalgic magic proving ever more magical with each passing year. But memories also elicit pain and sorrow, particularly when they remind us of that which is gone forever. Cinema is the art of time, the captured image a relic of the past, however recent, and editing the process of jumping backwards and forwards through audio-visual moments that gain meaning from their juxtaposition. It’s like dreaming while you’re awake.
This filmic quality is very much at play in writer/director Charlotte Wells’ evocative debut feature Aftersun. We follow 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her 30-year-old father, Calum (Paul Mescal, The Lost Daughter), on a long-ago vacation in Turkey. They are British, and her mother—divorced from Calum (either that or they were never married to begin with)—remains home in England while dad and daughter bond. Occasionally, we cut to the present, where the adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall, Vox Lux) conjures these souvenir echoes of a mostly cheerful trip.
She’s now partnered with her own newborn child, but we only catch tiny glimpses of this life along the way. More often, we see her dancing in a darkened space, flashing lights alternating with shots of her and Calum, the two timelines briefly intersecting through her blended recollections. Most of the time, we are in sun-dappled Turkey of 20 years prior, the lazy days of a week’s holiday infusing the movie with no immediate narrative urgency, even as it is clear the dramatic stakes—for today’s Sophie, anyway—couldn’t be higher.
Calum seems occasionally troubled, even as he clearly enjoys the time with Sophie. Or is it just a trick of her mind, the way she remembers him now? She herself is happy enough, meeting boys her age and teenagers who treat her with indulgent kindness. Even an incident where she gets locked out of the hotel room is seen as but one little unpleasant incident among the myriad enjoyable ones.
So wherein lies the drama? What makes Aftersun shine so vividly? Beyond the fine performances, there is the expressive look of it. Wells and her cinematographer, Gregory Oke (Raf), turn concrete images into abstract beauty that slowly resolves into rapturous visual splendor. They also prove enamored of close-ups and extreme close-ups, playing with landscapes of faces as well of objects. These details add up to an examination of how memory works, choosing elements particular to one individual. Someone other than Sophie would tell the tale quite differently
And then there is the underlying tension of a divorced parent and their child. No matter the love on display, there is also a constant sense of loss, as if the joy of the now could quickly vanish. Which, apparently, it does, as the film’s ending obliquely indicates. But before we plunge into the sadness of that, we have the delight of small pleasures, experienced in all their glory.