Aftersun really is the little movie that could. This film brought in word-of-mouth like gangbusters beginning with its Cannes Film Festival debut, and over the course of the following six months, it remained like a constant little whisper. With a small cast, a personal story and a director making their feature film debut, it’s difficult to know what to expect. Well, kids, I think we found one of the best movies of the year… just bring your tissues.
Aftersun follows the story of a young woman named Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) who, on the eve of her birthday, goes through her childhood home movies documenting the last summer she spent with her father (Paul Mescal). Much of the story is shown in flashback, featuring Frankie Corio as young Sophie. Charlotte Wells directs the autobiographical film from her own script.
If you haven’t heard Paul Mescal’s name, you will. With roles in recent indie critical darlings like The Lost Daughter, Carmen and God’s Creatures, he’s enjoyed a formidable last twelve months. A look over his upcoming filmography shows a number of high-profile movies in the works. This talented newcomer is here to say.
Aftersun‘s structure is a challenging one. Director Charlotte Wells’ interest is in the idea that, as children, we don’t “get” our parents. In truth, our strong protectors and providers as just as scared, mixed up and confused as we are. They just can’t show it. Really, even the most adult of us are simply playing at being “grown-up.”
With the film crafted in this manner, Callum (Mescal) doesn’t receive much character development. The audience sees him as his daughter does. He’s shown with all the blissful lack-of-awareness childhood brings. In her eyes, he can do no wrong.
Through all this, Mescal brings a shattering performance. He crafts intricate layers into this man. There’s a beautiful yet painful humanity bubbling inside Callum. At the same time, though, he’s also a divorced young father who has precious little time with his daughter. He can’t show the pain he’s feeling. While there’s a sense this young man has certainly lived a wild life, he’s grown into more than simply the “fun” dad.
Watching this film as an adult, the relatability and pain in Mescal’s performance is a thing of heart-wrenching beauty. Callum’s life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would. He doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere. We’ve all felt this at one time or another.
The pain Callum struggles to repress contrasts beautifully with the joyous chemistry he shares with Sophie (Corio). These two know and understand each other, even if they don’t get to see each other as much as they’d like. The joy Callum gets simply from being Sophie’s father emanates from the screen, leading to the quietly emotional (and surprisingly devastating) final ten minutes.
Aftersun comes to life in a quiet, meandering fashion. This film is an intensely personal one for Wells, and in this autobiographical work, she captures a precious slice of life. The focus is very much on these two characters and their bond. The world around them doesn’t matter. Everyone who isn’t Callum and Sophie is a bit player in this story.
The small and intensely personal nature of this story did hit a bit of a snag for me during act two. It isn’t a long film, but ultimately if this isn’t a narrative you’re feeling, this one is going to drag.
Meanwhile, the substantial use of home video throughout the narrative is a fascinating stylistic choice. Truthfully, it took a little bit for me to warm up to the footage. It’s a bit awkward. With that, though, home videos are always awkward. For me, it was also unpleasantly relatable. I was that pre-teen with a video camera… I remember many of those moments.
Though these moments are a little uncomfortable, we’re also seeing these characters at their most intensely personal. This knocks down the unconscious barrier of the unseen director and their camera, which always exists in cinema. Instead, as viewers, we’re sitting right next to Sophie, getting lost in these painful yet equally joyful moments. It’s a complex emotional experience.
While Aftersun is at some level so raw and personal, Wells brings a savvy, dreamlike glow to her camera work. As mentioned, the film is ultimately coming from an intensely personal place, yet there is still the nostalgic fantasy of youth attached to this story. Everything is bigger as a child. Things are brighter and more colorful. So while there are hints of Callum’s struggles on the horizon, there’s still a dreamlike quality to this vacation Sophie will always remember. There’s no pain or stress, just time with her Dad.
Aftersun was a hard viewing. I will admit I was sobbing as the final credits rolled. In her debut feature, Charlotte Wells crafts one of 2022’s best films. This tiny, intimately personal drama tackles some challenging and emotional questions through a beautiful and simple lens of a father-daughter relationship. If this beautiful film is only Charlotte Wells’ debut, I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.
Aftersun debuts in select theaters on November 4, 2022.
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