thu 25/07/2024

Aftersun review - the last good time | reviews, news & interviews

Aftersun review - the last good time

Aftersun review - the last good time

An indelible drama about a daughter-father holiday recalled

Lost days: Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in 'Aftersun'MUBI

The New York-based Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells's feature debut Aftersun is a sublime example of how an opaque style can be wedded to an ambiguous storytelling technique without cost to psychological truth. 

Though the movie is minimalistic on every level except its retrospective late Nineties Turkish seacoast setting, which Wells resists exploiting too pictorially, her mastery of film language is so uncanny as to make exposition almost redundant. Nothing much happens in Aftersun beyond a pre-teen’s first kiss and what might or might not be her young father’s first or second suicide attempt, but it’s a tense and ultimately devastating experience.

Aftersun visualises thirtyish Sophie's present-day memories of a package vacation she took to Turkey as an 11-year-old (newcomer Frankie Corio) with her loving but troubled and sometimes distracted father, Calum (Paul Mescal). Amicably separated from Sophie's mother, with whom Sophie was still living in Scotland, Calum had moved to London, where he and a friend apparently launched low-level business ventures that, one guesses, he didn't have the stamina or acumen to realise.
Sophie and Calum’s holiday is almost comically unremarkable. They sunbathe, swim, banter (he’s on notice not to embarrass her with his dance moves or any other expression of overt dad-ness), and eat – but he knocks back pints too easily. (Was the cast on his forearm at the start necessitated by a drunken fall, or did it have more sinister implications?) Sophie isn't there when he drifts into melancholia; he snaps out of it when they’re together.

Sophie meanwhile chats to a boy her age as they race adjacent arcade motorbikes before video screens. She shoots pool with some vacationing British teenagers, and helps shove a canoodling pair into the pool. Because of the brilliant Frankie Corio’s body language, Sophie's impassivity can’t conceal her curiosity about intimacy. When her arcade pal later leans in for a gentle kiss, she’s up for it. We fear for her a little (her admirer is hefty), but the greater concern is that Calum is too depressed to monitor her movements. 
But that was then. That Paul has died since the holiday (as Wells’s father died when she was a teen, though Aftersun isn’t strictly autobiographical) becomes an irksome reality via fleeting flash forwards. His death is mostly implied by his intimations of mortality in Turkey. (Pictured above: Corio and Mescal)

He tells a friendly scuba instructor that he fears not making 40. And one night, when Sophie should be asleep in their shared room but isn’t, he strides into the turbulent ocean like the suicidal novelist (Sterling Hayden) in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Yet he and Sophie still get to wave goodbye at the end of the holiday.

The grownup Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), seen only in a few fragmented scenes, lives with her female partner and their baby. She wakes anguished by nightmares in which Calum, stoned or ill, dances at a rave. We sense, but cannot know for sure, that he had addictions. Sophie's trauma would have been deepened by the fact that they enjoyed this last holiday when she and Calum were physically close – demonstrated by his resting his cast on her body and their rubbing sunblock on each other’s shoulders – just before her sexual awakening and, presumably, his death.

Wells's denying of rationales and evidence for Calum's demise, and the possibility that Sophie's memories have been altered by her unassuaged grief, makes it difficult to categorise the film as a realist work. Though Gregory Oke's cinematography has a fly-on-the-wall vérité texture, some rhyming frames have an elliptical quality that promises significant information but ultimately withholds it. They add to the sense that this low-key drama is as unknowable as most human hearts. Who was Calum? What was missing? What went wrong? With his warm little-boy smile and easy carriage, Mescal only intensifies the conundrum – Calum is another of the Irish actor's unreadable "normal people".

Aftersun has the aura of such post-kitchen sink British indies as Carine Adler's Under the Skin (1997) and Lynne Ramsey's Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), the rave scenes in the latter an influence on Wells’s. But the film's most fruitful analogue might be Maggie Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter (2021) with its disintegrating holidaymaker, feckless parenting, use of memories as a story someone tells themself, and depiction of a character embarked on self-destruction. (Pictured above: Mescal and Corio)

In one of Aftersun's most memorable scenes, Sophie tries to drag Calum on stage during a resort karaoke night to sing REM’s “Losing My Religion” with her. He refuses and seems angry, so she girlfully goes ahead and performs it alone, her voice heartbreakingly out of tune. 
Wells has said she knew the song’s lyrics by heart when she was “a kid”, but that detail can’t explain why the scene is so powerful. Is it attributable to Calum’s brokenness, to Sophie’s optimism, or the gulf between two people who love each that will soon be widened not by miles but by one's inexistence? I’d suggest the power comes from what the scene, like the film, intimates but won't explicate. It's as enigmatic as it needs to be.

Director Charlotte Wells's mastery of film language is so uncanny as to make exposition almost redundant


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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I agree with this review, and it put words to what I was feeling and think about this film. I had seen the shorts and was intrigued but knew it was going to be challenging especially with pacing. I was pleasantly surprised to be captive on a flight and let the gentle slow pacing wash over like idyllic Turkish waves. It captures the hollowness of depression and sadness of loss in such an unobvious way that invites the viewer to bring all their own questions and thoughts to the film, so it is impactful in a subtle way throughout the film and debilitating with its ending.

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