There is a silent triumph in Charlotte Wells’ debut feature film, Aftersun. It has been a while since I have noticed so many moviegoers exchanging excited whispers about a film on their way out of the cinema. It reminded me of what going to see a movie is all about, and it made me realise why Aftersun, about a father and daughter Summer holiday at a sunny resort in Turkey, is a film that has gone on to resonate with so many this film season.
Following my screening, a little obsessed, I quickly begun doing my research, focusing on getting to know more about the filmmaker and her process conceiving and making the film. After listening to podcasts, watching interviews and reading articles about the movie and Wells, I was surprised to find out that she rarely discussed the things that someone usually talks about after they have just released a film. There were few mentions of technical aspects, the production, or the cinematography—most of the conversations revolved around emotion.
In its own way, Aftersun is an act of imaginative empathy. A part of me walked into the cinema fully prepared to burst into tears, anticipating the big emotional climax as is common for your typical coming of age father-daughter feature. The film ends in a fashion that had a lot of the audience wondering if that was it — was there a big intense scene lost somewhere between the cuts that would have loudly announced itself? But no, there are no sentimental shortcuts. Instead, Wells alternates frankness and ennui from sequence to sequence.
It’s a piece of personal fiction, a seven years and a half process that started with Wells looking through family photos, shifting through memories, reflecting on them and finally writing a script that led to this unashamedly intimate final film. A film where every scene seeps through the screen like a whisper, and a simple plot is expressed with sharp precision. Working her way through a process of subtraction, the director purposely avoids shooting scenes that would provide the type of clarity that some people would and have claimed is missing.
If you try and apply the rules of a conventional reading of the film, the main question that will arise is obvious: What’s going on with Paul Mescal’s Calum? The audience never gets the answers they’re looking for, and this can be particularly frustrating—probably as frustrating as an adult Sophie’s mission to put together the image of the troubled man her father was. Calum is sometimes seen as a reflection on a mirror or television screen, obscured, half present and half absent, similar to adult Sophie’s glimpses of him at the rave. Trapped in a limbo.
The story is mostly told through Sophie’s point of view. Played magnificently by Frankie Corio in her first screen role, we follow her as she navigates through the interesting middle-ground between facts and memory. We’re trying to get as close as we can to her father. But how close can we really get with blurry childhood memories and handycam video clips?
In a certain sense this is a coming of age film both for Sophie and the audience. During the karaoke scene, we watch her move from childhood to adolescence, subtly, of course. It’s a torturous sequence, watching Sophie’s heart break through her eyes as her father declines to take the stage with her. It’s the first time we see her father, in some form, abandon her. Calum is giving away a half smile to her, trying to be there and show his support, but we get the feeling that something is bothering him, this time in a more profound way.
There’s an argument to be made that the huge positive reception to this film says something about the literacy of mental health with today’s audience. Nothing is explicitly said about Calum’s troubled headspace, but the allusions ring closer to reality than any oblique references to depression ever could: small observations of concealed inner turmoil, like the ones you might pick up from someone close to you. The fact that there’s a big conversation about this particular aspect of the film taking place between younger audience members — people in their late 20s and early 30s — points towards an audience ready to push the dialogue around mental health in a nuanced direction.
Aftersun is an elusive and devastating hour and forty minutes that will have you looking through family photo albums, unpacking childhood memories and re-contextualising them. Like that song that played at your 11th birthday party, or the swimsuit your parents bought you during your summer holidays in Greece because you forgot to pack yours, or the taste of the ice cream you had with your friends after a lazy summer bike ride. Like all of these vivid memories, Aftersun is a film that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.