'I Just Feel A Bit Down Or Something': Aftersun (Wells, 2022) Review
Well look what we have here? Another review I meant to pen almost four weeks ago.
I caught Aftersun in its first week, rushed to it in fear that the run would be swift and brief in the strange winter season filmed with gimmicks, Oscar-contenders and Christmas classics. I wasn’t sure how much it would be the darling; Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness looked to be a lingerer in my locals and yet came and went fast despite the esteem and talent behind it. Yet, here we are and Aftersun is still screening. There’s a good reason for that. Let’s pretend I saw it last night. That way it doesn’t look so bad that I sat on this.
What did I think of this tortured yet heartfelt depiction of a father and daughter’s love for one another over the course of few days on a Turkish package Holiday in the nineties? Quite a lot actually. Charlotte Wells feature debut is equal parts deeply personal, explicitly honest and utterly familiar in its depiction of familial relationships. The casting is brilliant, Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio give genuine performances in the lead roles, balancing authentic vulnerable nuance with the playful, uncomplicated bond between parents and kids.
11 year old Sophie (Corio) doesn’t live with her father, Calum (Mescal in a turn that reminds me of a young Alfred Molina), but loves him dearly. He books a trip away for them before the school term begins, a package holiday to Turkey where they stay in a hotel resort brimming with tourists. It seems like Calum is in between jobs. This trip is to prove something, yet things go wrong in little ways; the hotel doesn’t provide them a room with two beds, he will sleep on the cot, Sophie has become more perceptive to his differences. Through the video camera she films him with, moments captured in physical media and memory juxtaposed to adult Sophie as she reminisces, troubled more so, by this time with her father, we begin to form a fragmented picture of the troubled Calum.
Everything is delightfully subtle, ambiguous even to the end. From frames within frames, a marvellous scene played out in the reflection of the TV screen, mirrors and walls dividing our characters, a veil over our perception of them, situating us in a strange flux between Sophie’s viewpoint and one of a voyeur. I suppose if we frame the film in the idea of older Sophie’s retrospective, this fractured way of viewing our protagonists makes more sense. Some parts Sophie saw, some are parts she suspects, some is teased to us as an audience to paint a fuller yet far murkier picture of Calum.
With Sophie, and her coming of age journey, we capture the monumental struggle with mental health on a molecular level. Calum unwinds; a tortured glimpse of a falling figure through the nostalgic use of physical media so that there is dreadful ache before we really know the characters. Between them, as they wave farewell to one another at the airport in the opening scene, we sense that longing, the moment captured.
It’s a terrific dynamic and Wells handles beautifully. The relationship between them is relatively healthy. Calum struggles with being a younger dad, getting confused for Sophie’s older brother by other guests and so forth, along with the implied issues surrounding employment, money, possible alcoholism, relationships, self-destructive tendencies and his responsibilities by the age of thirty (and somehow Wells encapsulates this through the motif of the rug he becomes obsessed with… and it works). Sophie asks him what he thought he would be doing by then when he was her age; he refuses to answer. There could be a lot of things. Or nothing. He loves being a dad to Sophie that is obvious but there’s more to it, he's somewhere else.
What I love best about the conflict of ages, and the unusual exploration of this dynamic, is Sophie being on the cusp of teenagerdom. She is young enough to be forgiving of her father’s shortcomings whilst displaying signs that conflict between them is on the horizon, resentment can build, she’s becoming her own person; she calls him out - "Stop... Offering to pay for something when you don't have the money.". Honesty is obviously a part of their relationship. There doesn’t seem to be a lack of love in either of their lives - he admits to loving her mother if only platonically, a lovely layer to the ‘broken’ family narrative, respect exists between Sophie’s parents. He demands she know how to defend herself, to be open with him about experiences; it’s beautifully handled. Yet these also feel like desperate attempts to impart something to her one last time. The bond of father and daughter, one so full of trust and love is a rare thing to see on screen, certainly one that lacks the overbearing misogyny that runs deep in many of the narratives. Here we see a man openly guiding his child; as much protective as he is encouraging, even as they seem to be growing apart.
The setting is ideal. It’s strained, buzzing with an abundance of Brits partaking in cheesy activities and roasting themselves by the pool. A cathartic trip to Turkish baths in the latter half of the film is not only refreshing for the audience but a slither of culture far more grounding than the shallowness of the tourism haven. In its use and the significance of that type of holiday in the nineties suggests a large effort on Calum’s part to spend some time with her though the story reveals rather potently that she does not see him as much as she would like.
There is a striking balance between his presence and absence in the film. Mescal carries this act with great tenderness, projecting the inner turmoil, the relaxed exterior in contrast to his more parental instincts. It’s a fine, harrowing line to walk and somehow Mescal does it. This is clearly made easier with the brilliant Corio who gives a natural and gentle performance; together on screen you believe it.
If there was any part I felt stumbled, it was the ‘future’ scenes. Sophie all grown doesn’t sit as comfortably with the other aspects of the film, sometimes posing a little jarring. That is until that finale. Then I got it. The desire to save, years of experiences weighing you down until suddenly you’re seeing the world with the perspective your parents and you just… get it.
I think I know why part of me struggled to even start this review. Not a day went by where I didn’t think of Aftersun. At one point in the theatre, I was questioning the hype, and then the last twenty minutes happened and it all made sense and I felt that strange, familiar itch in the back of my mind that it all felt real, that my feeling had been before. I’m not a parent. I am a daughter, a half-baked, dribbled out of the mould, inexplicably got incinerated on only the upper right-hand corner kind of offspring. Yet those feelings could go beyond that. Loss, in all its forms, living and lifeless was present for me in that screening. Understanding, and seeing no better path to salvation sat heavy within the experience; I suppose that was Wells intention after all.
'I think it's nice that we share the same sky...' - Sophie
Not much happens in Aftersun yet everything mundane possibly does. Life and love, man. Wells story is pivotal to human condition, to young women, to the modern depiction of familial love in our stories. Frank, sometimes funny and warm yet often deeply melancholic, I wanted to make it better and felt my powerlessness as both the spectator and the child. The conflict in that with the beautiful experiences they share. Wells had made an absolutely gorgeous film and one impossible to forget. I look forward to her future projects and hope and pray that we see more from young female directors and representation at the awards this season. Aftersun deserves it.