Charlotte Wells’ astute debut feature Aftersun (2022) rings with a rare authenticity in its flawless portrayal of dysfunctional characters. A daughter embarks on an emotional journey with her father in this complex, slow-paced drama, only to discover him as a person she has never truly known. The events unfold through quotidian incidents that help the two experience, capture, and relive the small joys of a short-lived vacation that make lasting impressions on their lives.
In terms of the storyline, there are no key developments in plot points. It moves at a leisurely, unhurried pace allowing us to intimately observe this somber tale of bonding and the perplexity of parenthood.
The film creatively forces us to realize how the unsettling shadows of our bygone days frequently determine our existence. We don’t get a satisfactory ending. By doing, so the filmmaker emphasizes how filial relationships are too intricate to be bound to a narrative, and are best left open-ended.
The story is autobiographical, in how the filmmaker describes a childhood memory through various segments in an effort to balance the loss and anguish of her life. Eleven-year old Sophie enjoys her rare time with her adoring and idealistic father, Calum, at a resort in Turkey. The two enjoy swimming in the hotel pool, playing video games in the arcade, singing karaoke, day tripping, and dining outside. Sophie is free-spirited but not yet an adult and prefers to enjoy every moment of the vacation. Calum keeps drinking and regularly wanders out alone. The two also spend a lot of time apart, especially at night.
Sophie befriends a boy at the arcade, and the two have fun racing motorbikes. She also meets a group of charming older teenagers who enjoy playing pool and drinking beer. At times, Calum exhibits behavior that exposes his moral ambiguity. He is overwhelmed with life’s responsibilities, and looking after his daughter is particularly taking a toll on him. It soon it becomes obvious that Calum is having a difficult time. There is something inexplicable about the misery he’s trying to hide from his daughter. When he’s alone and silent, he drowns himself in melancholic thoughts. Soon, Sophie learns that, in order to step into adulthood, she needs to take on her own responsibilities.
Twenty years later, an adult Sophie, played by Rowlson-Hall, tries to reconcile the father she knew with the man she didn’t. Her emotional memories of their last vacation take on a compelling and heartbreaking depiction of their relationship.
The filmmaker employs scenes rife with meaning that genuinely examine the human condition, probe the depths of the human psyche, and ask crucial questions about the meaning of existence. On numerous occasions, we observe the characters surrendering themselves to the blissful state of dancing to the rhythm of music in a discotheque. These scenes are interspersed with lights flickering, becoming a metaphoric representation of how memories play an enigmatic role in the lives of the characters.
For the adult Sophie, these scenes serve as an inquiry into her intense desire to see this man, who, from what we can gather, has likely been absent from her life for a long time. In another scene, a photographer asks Calum if he would pay him to take a photo of both of them enjoying a meal. Calum readily agrees, and as the polaroid photo is kept on the table, a fuzzy image begins to focus in front of our eye. It indicates that this image will be remembered for a very long time and has a gripping impact on Sophie’s life.
We observe colorful gliders hovering in the sky. They represent the transient moments of togetherness between the father and daughter. They also offer a glimpse into how both their lives will alter following their vacation in Turkey.
One of the most recognizable aspects of this enigmatic tale of childhood memory and grief is the camerawork. Cinematographer Gregory Oke employs a personal shooting technique that mixes various camera settings for a home video appearance. On the journey, Calum and Sophie both take turns operating a video camera from the 1990s that they brought with them. The pixelated images of the camcorder serve as a medium for viewers to explore the moments of the vacation in fragments and realize Sophie’s pain to comprehend a man who was once so close to her. This footage will help Sophie unravel the undisclosed sufferings that her father was unable to escape.
Mescal delivers a delicate, incredibly emotional act. He perfectly balances a loving father’s desire to spend more time with his child during a limited vacation, while also working on his inner turmoil. It’s one of the most exquisitely controlled performances in a recent British film. Frankie Corio, who portrays his vivacious daughter Sophie, expresses both the clumsiness of a teenager and the self-possession of a child.
Aftersun is languid and mystical in its form and content, complexly structured to appear and feel that way. It’s a compelling tale of two individuals forced into a circumstance where they’re compelled to care for one another despite knowing how tough they’re for each other. Through her memories and the home-video footage Sophie searches for his estranged father. It becomes an opportunity for her to think about her relationship with her father and see him in a different light.
Relying on its straightforward premise, Aftersun weaves a heartfelt tale of a battered inner life that brims with longing. The result is a fascinating, enthralling on-screen experience.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.