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‘Aftersun’ review: Director Charlotte Wells’s devastating, compassionate debut

By November 27, 2022No Comments7 min read
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In Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’s tender portrait of a father and daughter twinged with the ache of remembrance and reflection, viewers watch with increasingly wounded hearts as memories warp, fray, and ultimately tether to define a man destined to be knowable in fragments. 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) adores all that she does know. Calum (Paul Mescal) loathes what she sees. Aftersun begs the question of how much we ever understand our parents, and how much was left just out of frame for us to overhear, to catch snippets of, or be kept hidden from altogether.

Calum isn’t an enigmatic figure so much as one whose absence left with it further questions of who he was when Sophie wasn’t within eyeshot and how to contend with a deep-rooted love with nowhere to land, edged with bitter resentment of all she missed out on. It is, by all accounts, a crushing portrait of the endless possibilities that weren’t taken. 

Reflecting on a holiday she spent with her father 20 years earlier, Sophie digs through memories real and imagined as a means to piece together footage and recollections of the father she thought she knew. To Sophie, he’s a mystery. To us, a tragedy. 

Despite this — or perhaps made more poignant because of it — the film still finds pockets of levity as we experience Sophie’s childhood memories from her perspective. Sophie in the modern day is celebrating her birthday, 20 years later, so the age her dad would’ve been, and spends most of the time chasing the visage that was her dad, always out of reach, blinded to one another in a fog-consumed club where Calum dances with abandon, his daughter’s voice swallowed whole. 

“You can live wherever you want to live.”

Filmed with purpose to mimic the eyes and ears of a preteen girl who is by the day growing more perceptive, this framing encapsulates all that she misses. It’s through the snapshots and home movie effect of the picture that capture the powerful bond between Calum and Sophie. Their hugs and little moments, the inside jokes that they share in, it all suggests a bond shaped by infinite love, even as the former struggles with an inner turmoil that can’t be chased away by enforced meditation or alcohol. The latter in particular only manages to stir up greater self-hatred. 

Sophie is clever and intuitive, and when she stands alone on a stage to sing at a karaoke event, her father drinking in view and hardly making eye contact, Corio has a moment of such wisdom beyond her years as Sophie starts to realize she’s been, at this moment, abandoned. Yet her burgeoning sense of self moves forward as she absorbs the older teens around her and tries to follow their example, be it from resisting her father’s help in public to receiving her first kiss from a boy on vacation, she crucially misses so much else. This is by design, of course. Of both the film and Calum himself. Because it’s not so much what she doesn’t see but what she doesn’t understand in her elusive father. It’s also what Calum spends his time withholding from her.

She’s annoyed when he tries to teach her self-defense. But there’s a plain, frenzied desperation behind the playful tilt of Calum’s words as he instructs her to try again. We’re already mourning the character as he behaves in a manner that doesn’t so much suggest he worries about not being around to protect his daughter, but a detached acceptance that his time is fleeting, and he needs to pass on all that he knows. 


“Be whoever you want to be.”

Mescal is phenomenal in the role, embodying such a broken figure who’s giving all of himself over to try and rise to the occasion. So much so that it physically hurts to watch him. He paints the figure of a young, embarrassing dad, with his hiked-up socks and belted khaki shorts, but that can’t distract from the pain leveling him.

From brief moments such as when he worries his daughter might’ve inherited his mental illness and he spits at himself in the mirror, to his face wiped cleaned when he realizes he locked his daughter out of their room, to the anguish of his broken sobs, back to us and naked in bed, as vulnerable a character can be, Mescal’s Calum deals one devastating blow after another. With a performance of precision and patience aided by Wells’s writing, he takes a scalpel to the interiority of pain, and how there’s a limit to how much can be contained before it spills over. 

I don’t really have recurring dreams, so much as recurring themes in them, always popping up. In these types of dreams, I’ve lost my voice in moments of such dread-induced panic that I wake up, the whisper of a shout lost on my tongue. In the dreams, I’m separated from my dad, in trouble, as I yell for him, my voice becoming hard to come by. A disaster takes place in a shopping center, and as I push myself through the crowd, screaming for my sisters to run, nothing comes out as the currents of noise engulf me.

In a lesser film, the present-day sequences with Sophie forcing herself against unmovable crowds would be filler, afterthoughts for what is the bulk of the story. In the overwhelming crescendo where the lyrics from “Under Pressure” break over us like waves as we stagger to stay upright, these moments manifest into a physical embodiment of a dream, encompassing a half-forgotten, yet deep-rooted memory. 

“You have time.”

Aftersun understands that in reflection arrives enlightenment, in old home movies a distinct separation of self (is that what I really sound like?) And, in dreams, the inability to brandish your voice or own your corporeal self. Because as we watch a present-day Sophie reach him, we are slammed into the past as she holds on tight to her dad, enjoying the last summer days of cooling evenings. Much of her memory of him is held in his embrace. 

With Gregory Oke’s work as DP establishing a tone of pensiveness and warmth through rich landscapes and vast seas, this is but a sample of the immeasurable grief the entire film touches. Told with such delicacy, such empathy, that it’s impossible to leave it unchanged, Aftersun is bruising in effect, haunting in what it leaves us shouldering. At the very least, it left me reeling from its abundance of heart and painful truths. 

Not every film requires the viewer bring with them their own history, but Aftersun presses for introspection, Wells’s film acting as a means to engage with what is perceived as lost to time. With me, I bring the fact that my mom and I are twenty years apart, and my youngest sister (named Sophia) and I, 16 years apart. People got confused often when we went out, either my mom being asked if the two of us were sisters or, later, when Sophia came along, me being asked if she was my first kid. My mom and I have the same age difference that Sophie and Calum share, which is about where the comparison ends, but it’s enough to burn bright.

The bottom line.

Thin as the connections may be, and as sparse as the moments of unadulterated happiness are, the love between Sophie and Calum is so pure, so tangible, that the result is an astonishing, life-affirming portrait, even with the suffering so visceral. Pain can be alleviated by love, and pockets of memories soothe the aches of grief, even if time fails to erase it. Because even as Sophie tries to piece together a full picture of her dad to try and find the man he was beyond the title, even as she screams and reaches for him in desperation, she at the very least remembers him dancing. And he loved dancing. 

Aftersun is out now in limited theaters. Watch the trailer below.

Featured Image Courtesy of A24.

  • AFTERSUN - 10/10
Allyson Johnson

Based in New England, Allyson is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of InBetweenDrafts. Former Editor-in-Chief at TheYoungFolks, she is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Her writing has also appeared at CambridgeDay, ThePlaylist, Pajiba, VagueVisages, RogerEbert, TheBostonGlobe, Inverse, Bustle, her Substack, and every scrap of paper within her reach.

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