Vague Visages’ Aftersun review contains minor spoilers. Charlotte Wells’ 2022 movie stars Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio and Celia Rowlson-Hall. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Shimmering like a mirage that retreats and dematerializes the closer one gets, Aftersun may just be the best movie of 2022. The self-described “emotionally autobiographical” feature debut of Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells, the film is a treasure for those viewers who prefer ambiguity and understatement. The deceptively straightforward story follows the low-key father-daughter holiday of 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and about-to-turn-31 Calum (Paul Mescal). Their vacation at a seaside resort in Turkey, filled with seemingly carefree time in the swimming pool, billiards and arcade games, moonlight dining and DJs spinning the hits of the late-90s period at dance parties, veil feelings of frustration and darkness that trouble the male protagonist.
Despite just a small handful of student films completed during her time in NYU’s graduate film program, Wells demonstrates the confidence and command of a veteran storyteller. Aftersun has drawn multiple comparisons to the cinema of fellow Scot Lynne Ramsay in both thematic and stylistic approach — a genuine compliment to the emerging talent. The filmmaker has acknowledged the influence of Chantal Akerman, Edward Yang, Todd Haynes, Sylvia Chang and Barry Jenkins (who served as an Aftersun producer). Wells is certainly no slavish imitator, though. She constructs her very own universe with an eye and ear for the particular and the unique.
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Aftersun joins a short list of films that successfully use the father-daughter relationship as a means to examine the liminal state between childhood and adolescence as well as the inevitable recognition of flawed personhood that manifests once we begin to see a parent as an individual. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Paper Moon (1973) and Leave No Trace (2018) are just three examples that explore different dynamics unique to childrearing. And despite the obvious differences in depictions of wealth and privilege, Aftersun rhymes with key aspects of Sofia Coppola’s beautiful Somewhere (2010). In one similarity, both Calum and Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco are encumbered with casts while they nurse broken bones back to health.
Those parallel rhetorical signifiers in the two movies suggest splintering and fragmentation beyond the physical circumstances that necessitated trips to the emergency room, and both daughters grapple — in ways particular to their circumstances — with the unfair burden of looking after the dads. Wells and Coppola are also both deeply invested in the observational. In Aftersun, camcorder footage links past and future and glimpses of Calum as imagined by the grown-up Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) strobe in a haunting dreamscape motif.
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Wells distances Calum from both Sophie and the viewer, dropping hints throughout Aftersun’s narrative regarding the extent of his depression and an unspoken inclination to self-harm. With director of photography Gregory Oke, Wells often chooses to partially obscure Calum, framing him in compositions that hide or cut off the audience’s view of the whole. The cumulative effect is potent, even heartbreaking. Several scenes qualify as moments out of time: a lost diving mask, a visit to a rug merchant, a karaoke performance, a spine-tingling application of “Under Pressure.” All these and many others charge Aftersun with a quiet devastation and poignance.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.
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