Early in Charlotte Wells’ feature directorial debut, 11 year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) says to her young father Calum (Paul Mescal) that it’s nice that they share the “same sky”. Both of them are basking in pocketfuls of Turkey sun in their week-long vacation, and it is supposed to be the time, when Calum gets to know his daughter up close. He asks what does she mean by that, to which she says that even though they inhabit different spaces, both of them are still living under the same sky, so they are still bound together in some sort of a way. It’s a small, molecular observation but – washed up in Aftersun’s carefully-constructed narrative fabric – opens up a profound question of finding our way back to the ones we love.
Now streaming on Mubi India, Aftersun is composed of these small, languid moments of observation and remembrance as we are invited to take a peek into two people’s lives. We see the narrative unfold through Sophie’s eyes, as she spends the week-long holidays with her father in Turkey that he can barely afford. She chooses to let go of the fact that they haven’t been assigned the chosen hotel room and spends time filming her experience in a camcorder. But there’s a certain reach she has on her father, who seems to be going through some sort of anguish. The disarmingly intimate moments between father and daughter like applying sunscreen, gearing up to go scuba-diving, and normal conversations become a smokescreen for something disproportionately sad. We realise this trip is a memory for adult Sophie to contemplate what happened during her 11th birthday – glimpses of her dancing alone in a nightclub resonate a crushing need to seek answers from her father.
With Calum, Paul Mescal builds a character that feels like a distant relation to his breakthrough debut with Connell in 2020’s Normal People. Unlike Connell, we are not given a closer look at Calum’s backstory. It is hinted in moments of quiet despair- when Calum says he cannot imagine seeing himself at 40. Or the way he settles for a quiet rumination with Sophie when he tells her that she can choose to be anyone she wants to be. Mescal builds Calum in his little displays of affection and distance. Its an unshowy, rewarding performance that demands attention. Yet the real guiding star of Aftersun is newcomer Frankie Corio as Sophie, whose innocence and inquisitiveness as a precocious child glimpsing into the wilderness of adulthood is rendered with utmost care and understanding. Together, their chemistry feels undeniably real and believable.
Charlotte Wells builds up these moments disguised as memories to culminate into a shattering crescendo in the last moments of Aftersun. Raw, haunting and devastatingly personal- these few minutes of Aftersun in the dark is unlike anything else you will encounter onscreen. Its a needle drop that packs a emotional wallop- the small inconsistencies of Sophie’s personal memories reaching out to the perennial quest to understand that our parents are human beings too. No matter how much Sophie tries to capture her father, all the video footage in the world will not be able to hold Calum’s crushing sense of despair and loneliness.
What works tremendously in favour of Aftersun is the extent to which screenwriter-director Charlotte Wells is able to trust her audience to fill in the details. Not a single narrative decision to curtain over certain facts of Calum’s life feels like a snide trick to evoke added resonance. Aftersun understands that memory is a transient, evaporating trick- which is best left unexplained. Yet Wells also underlines the limits to which one can ask these questions. Just as one gets too close to finding the answer and solving the trick- she throws you off balance. This is a film of immense humanity and intelligence, one that puts Wells as one of the most compelling voices to watch out for. You’ll not be able to hear David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure the same way again.
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