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Aftersun: Recontextualising the Memories That Haunt Us

"Still from Aftersun (2023) dir. Charlotte Wells"

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Aftersun.

To look back on old memories – to reflect on the beautiful moments, the carefree nostalgia, and how things have changed, for better or worse – can be a wonderful thing. There’s always a darkness to revisiting the past once you discover a new layer of context that you couldn’t have seen when you were younger. It can reframe that happiness into unresolved melancholy that now looms over those moments. You finally get the big picture, but there isn’t any full closure, and the true punishment is there can never be one. Things are just as they are.

This is a universal concept that hits hard at home, and it’s one that rising writer-director Charlotte Wells takes on in her feature debut, Aftersun. What makes it unexpectedly striking is how she utilises subtle, sensorial storytelling to portray a father-daughter relationship and not only captures its tenderness but transforms its ordinariness into such a unique connection to create an emotionally devastating experience.

In the past, 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) went on a summer holiday to Turkey with her 30-year-old father Calum (Paul Mescal), determined to give her the best vacation possible. With MiniDV footage interspersed throughout, we observe, through Sophie’s eyes, the activities in her hotel, her loving interactions with her father, and her encounters with British teenagers and a boy expressing interest in her. Outside of Sophie’s perspective, there’s something off with Calum. Detached, depressed and lost in his struggles, Calum tries his best to hide his state through a façade of contentment. Because of Aftersun’s primary use of its child perspective, it’s hard to figure out what is happening with Calum and why he is this way. In its brief cuts back to the present, we see an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) in a rave, disconnected and detached from the people around her. She sees a familiar figure in the distance: her father as she remembered him in Turkey – but it’s not clear. She tries to get closer to him, but she can’t. Once Aftersun returns to the past, we’re back in those memories, which have become a mystery for the audience to investigate.

Aftersun’s intentions are not clear until the finale. When they finally click, it’s a soul-crushing realisation. Throughout the first viewing, you only watch it through the perspective of young Sophie, recognising something’s off and waiting for that big moment to happen. Except, there isn’t one. The tragedy has already happened. Aftersun plays out as a series of memories unfolding through dream logic and never overdramatises its emotions or emphasises a sense of plot, instead presenting the small character moments and interactions as they are. Through its stunning, subtle, visual style and aesthetic storytelling, Aftersun develops a raw emotional complexity. On the surface, it seems tranquil, uneventful and peaceful, yet underneath these memories, there’s a gradual build of a melancholic undercurrent that gets underneath the viewer’s skin without suspicion.

It asks you to embrace these moments for what they are, and when Producer Director Gregory Oke’s masterful 360-degree final shot beautifully and crushingly shows you what Aftersun is about, it prompts a second viewing. One where you can no longer see it through young Sophie’s perspective but only through her adult self; maybe her father’s. Only through later viewings do you become more active in investigating clues, details, and visual symbolism that can explain Calum’s circumstances and what young Sophie missed out on, yet no matter how you look, Aftersun’s numerous loose ends prevent possible answers from being concrete. Its many ambiguities are what make it crushing to watch. You’re left to empathise with adult Sophie’s unspoken despair that, despite trying to understand her father, she never can. The minimal number of scenes revolving around Sophie’s present speaks to how she clings to the past, trying to find closure for something that can never be gained. Much like how the minds of those around us are mysteries, we can never know our friends and family for what they are, all we can do is love them for who they are.

"Still from Aftersun (2023) dir. Charlotte Wells"

Aftersun’s ambiguities render its presentation of memories intentionally unreliable, cleverly realised by the emotional subjectivity of Wells’ filmmaking. In flashbacks of Calum alone, the misé-en-scene and blocking of his internalised, self-destructive behaviour and emotional distress, feel like Sophie’s interpretations of his emotional state. Through Wells’ use of space and dim colours, she highlights Calum’s isolation with his personal demons and his growing inability to fight them as Aftersun progresses through the journey and towards the inevitable doom of its finale. Whenever Wells returns to Sophie’s memories through her perspective, the colours flourish like revisiting the happiness of certain memories. The cinematography grows intimate to reflect her observational nature and previous innocence – even if she had a subconscious sense of her father’s issues. Wells’ contrast of Sophie’s youthful innocence against Calum’s emotional desolation highlights how her visual storytelling crafts the complex dynamics of her characters with such aching empathy and brutal honesty, that it’s painful to watch, but hard to look away from.

Between its subjective filmmaking, it finds a function for its MiniDV footage. Whereas human memory distorts and loses details over time, the camera acts as a tool of objectivity and captures a specific place and time. It is not only based in reality, but it preserves the people and the objects in them so that they are never forgotten. It is impossible to question the truth of Aftersun’s MiniDV footage, only that they bring us a step closer towards recontextualising those special memories and the unknowable. Its emotional function prevents the device from feeling gimmicky or distracting and instead builds upon its thematic layers of how we revisit memories through other means of evidence and recollection.

"Still from Aftersun (2023) dir. Charlotte Wells"

In the pursuit of emotional truth and closure, Wells finds the complexity in the performances and chemistry between Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal. Corio’s performance as Sophie brims with innocence yet maturity, and through her incomparable expressions and body language, she’s able to capture such raw and diverse emotions. Her face can say so much without uttering a single word. It is astonishingly nuanced for a child performance. But it’s Mescal’s performance that captures the understated tragedy of his role and provides a haunting depiction of the depths of depression. How he captures the pain of a father trying to keep up his crumbling veneer of happiness and charm, trying not to ruin things for his daughter, is hard to watch. His emotional intensity is repressed until he lets it out at one point, alone in his hotel room. The audience is never able to fully understand his character, and Mescal uses that knowledge to deliver an empathetic performance. It makes the dynamic between him and Corio soul-crushing.

The authenticity and chemistry of their performance together lie in the emotional contrasts of both performers. Corio’s performance is full of curiosity, yet limited insight, and Mescal’s is full of helplessness, yet care. Every moment of theirs becomes significant in getting emotionally invested in their loving father-daughter bond, and even their rare dramatic moments don’t rely on over-cranked emotions. Instead, it’s the tender humanity of both leads that lets Aftersun explore its characters and discover the emotional depth of their lives.

This emotional depth is what makes Aftersun so overwhelming to watch. It will remind viewers of memories of their relationships; some that are great, others that are harrowing, but which altogether provoke an intensely cathartic reaction. Memories haunt us by bringing us back to the past, reminding us of times that have slipped away. Details fade and some answers can never be gained, but in the end, memory is where we preserve images of the people we love. It's hard to reconcile these memories with who our loved ones truly were, and those feelings may always remain complicated, but to remember and miss them is to hold a place in our hearts.

That’s what Charlotte Wells perfectly captures. An intensely personal and unforgettable experience that leaves you a different person after the credits roll.

Score: 10/10.


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