By Thomas M. Puhr.
Debuting filmmaker Charlotte Wells isn’t a promising new writer-director with an emerging voice; her voice is already there, crystal clear.”
Time dilates when you’re on vacation. Days spent lounging at the pool and wandering around the hotel become pleasantly lethargic. You can almost trick yourself into thinking this escape from everyday life will last indefinitely, like the endless horizon at the beach. In retrospect, however, they feel lightning fast, your experiences there distilled into some photographs, videos, or souvenirs. The horizon has something at its opposite end after all, its eternal nature an optical illusion. The same can be said for adolescence, a period that seems interminable in the moment but is relegated to hazy memories. Did you remember that formative experience accurately, or did you miss some crucial detail?
Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun (2022) captures the childhood vacation in a way I’ve never quite seen in a film. It feels much longer than its 102 minutes suggest, and I do not mean this as an insult. It follows the rhythm of its two central characters, an English father and daughter spending their holiday in a Fethiye resort. That is to say, it takes its time. It wanders. It doubles back on itself. It allows its leads (and us) to not do much of anything, and instead reflect. Some will surely find their patience tested by this glacial pacing. There are no big, dramatic arguments, but moments of quiet tension, of comments crafted in that hurtful way only those closest to us can do. And there are many unanswered questions. It’s a strange realization, that the clarity you thought the adults in the room had doesn’t exist. Such is life.
The film opens with camcorder footage the daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), is shooting of her father, Calum (Paul Mescal), in their hotel room. Calum has been divorced from Sophie’s mother for a while now, and it’s clear from the start that he’s struggling both financially and emotionally. He makes vague references to a failed business with a friend and a sort-of engagement that fell through with an unnamed woman. Their room only has one bed, so he sleeps on the floor and tiptoes onto the balcony at night to sneak a smoke. Sophie, of course, notices all of this. She also notices how her father couldn’t afford the all-inclusive wristband the teens she meets at the pool wear. As an 11-year-old, she’s at an age in which it’s increasingly difficult for Calum to hide his troubles from her. Perhaps in response to this burgeoning maturity, he’s more forthcoming and tells her about a painful childhood memory of his parents forgetting his birthday (this story sets up a wallop of an emotional payoff in a later sequence).
These resort scenes are the real meat of the narrative: tender, sad, and sometimes even funny (as a period piece set in the ’90s, the film is almost obliged to show tourists dancing to the Macarena). I can say without fear of hyperbole that Corio, a newcomer, is an absolute revelation, more than holding her own against Mescal. The two really feel like a daughter and father, and this authenticity is how Aftersun achieves that magic quality rarely seen on screen: You forget the two are actors. They are Sophie and Calum. Interspersed with this main thread are short, enigmatic scenes of an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) dancing in a strobe-lit club. These quasi-surreal departures initially seem affected: artsy posturing for the sake of artsy posturing. But they prove crucial to a climactic episode at the resort, wherein the two timeframes overlap to heartbreaking effect.
Aftersun is also a pleasure to look at. That this is Wells’ first feature boggles the mind. Especially striking is how she and cinematographer Gregory Oke layer their images, both spatially and temporally. Consider a dissolve in which a clear blue sky peppered with paragliders fades into leaves floating in a pool. Or a sequence in which we watch Sophie and Calum in their room’s TV screen (via the girl’s live recording) and their concurrent movements in a mirror. Or a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of adult Sophie’s face in the reflection of her vacation videos, which encompass the entire frame. None of these compositions are extravagant or showy, but precise and intentional; they exhibit a keen attention to detail. And, yes, they are also beautiful.
The film’s final shot – which has already made the rounds on social media, unfortunately, though I will not reveal it here – is one moment that didn’t quite ring true for me. It’s a dip a little too far into the fantastical that doesn’t congeal with everything preceding it. Still, it’s a bold move, and I’ve thought about it often in the few weeks since I’ve seen the film. That says a lot. It’s emblematic of a work that has had the most lingering effect on me in 2022. Wells isn’t a promising new writer-director with an emerging voice; her voice is already there, crystal clear.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.