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Charlotte Wells’ Debut Feature Is Poignant & Powerful

Jan 10, 2023

Home Movie Reviews Aftersun Review: Charlotte Wells’ Debut Feature Is Poignant & Powerful

Wells masterfully weaves the past and present together, and it’s in the exploration of one’s memory where the drama is at its best. 

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun

Written and directed by Charlotte Wells, who makes her directorial debut, Aftersun is a beautifully told story that reflects upon what is remembered, the gaps in between, and the nature of memory itself. With a focus on a father-daughter relationship and their connection, Aftersun ponders which memories leave an imprint, and what is lost when trying to see a clearer picture of a loved one’s inner life. Wells masterfully weaves the past and present together and, though the film doesn’t have any straightforward answers, it’s in the exploration of one’s memory and the reflections that emerge where the drama is at its best.
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Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her father Calum (Paul Mescal) are on holiday in Turkey. Sophie and Calum lounge by the pool, go to karaoke, and have nice dinners together. There’s is a seemingly normal vacation, a final summer outing before Sophie starts school, but there is a sense of gloom that colors their otherwise cheerful time together, moments that are not fully realized by the 11-year-old Sophie at the time. Twenty years later, an adult Sophie (Celia Rowson-Hall) revisits her last holiday with her father through recorded recollections and personal memory.

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Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun

Aftersun employs the use of a camcorder to acknowledge the memories Sophie recorded and the ones she did not. The sound of the camera rewinding, stopping, and starting haunts the film from the get go, encroaching upon every scene as a reminder that what the audience is seeing may be skewed precisely because of how Sophie remembers the events. Wells expertly maneuvers between the scenes of visually recorded memory and other moments to explore a seemingly happy holiday in the sun. There’s a deep melancholy that punctuates nearly every interaction, a yearning to understand what Sophie might have missed or not known about her father at the time. It’s as though Sophie the adult is trying to parse through the events of this specific holiday with her father to grasp what she couldn’t see initially.

As the camera pauses and starts again, certain scenes are repeated from a different angle and perspective, and one can see the growing desperation Sophie feels to reach out to her father all the while. While the nostalgia of memory both remembered and recreated blanket the film, the story is focused on the holiday experiences of its leading characters. Actions, conversations, and moments that seem mundane may take on greater meaning, but the film is, at its core, an examination of a girl and her father’s relationship. The execution is poignant and sweet, lovely and emotionally loaded, a powerful, evocative story that aches and refuses to be forgotten.

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun

From the outside looking in, Aftersun is a simple tale of a regular, almost mundane, vacation. It’s as though one is looking through old photographs. Smiling, content faces might be gazing back, but the images require exploration beyond the surface. What was that holiday truly like, and what was it about this specific part of the past that brought Sophie back to analyze every piece of it? Wells’ film forces the audience to look past its sun-soaked sheen of happiness, as Sophie is trying to do. There are implications made, but never confirmed, and the story is made all the stronger because it keeps viewers simultaneously close and at arm’s length, allowing their minds to assess without losing out on the value of Sophie and Calum’s relationship.

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio are a great pair, and their naturalistic acting and interactions make it easy to believe their familial relationship. Mescal is especially gentle and patient as Calum, oozing love for Sophie while conveying a deeper layer that subtly hints at his internal struggles. Corio, meanwhile, infuses Sophie with a sense of curiosity and the contentment of a child who is unaware of certain things at such a young age. Their bond is the heart of the film. As Aftersun barrels towards its inevitable end, it paints a clear enough picture without tying any of its loose threads together. Sometimes, there are no answers to the biggest questions a child-turned-adult may have about a parent’s headspace, and sorting through memories — be they remembered or not — may not bring them no matter how many times they’re replayed.

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Aftersun played during the 2022 Middleburg Film Festival. The film released in limited theaters October 21 and will expand to nationwide theaters thereafter. It is 96 minutes long and is rated R for some language and brief sexual material.

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