“You know I want you to know that you can talk to me about anything.”
We hear an old camcorder against a black screen. The film is rewound and rewatched, pulled here and there and back again. Then we get to focus on Calum (Paul Mescal), a baby-faced father who enters the shakily shot frame, displaying what he calls “his moves” as his daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) records the moment. She’s turning 11 soon and asks him a question; “When you were 11, what did you think you’d be doing now?” Calum stares with empty eyes, dips out of frame, and the tape pauses. We’re watching a memory unfold in real time, as a rarely glimpsed grown Sophie looks back and tries to navigate her own past and the fun father who raised her, as well as the broken man who she grew up beside. Aftersun is a remarkable film about love and loss, and is by far the most heart wrenching picture I’ve seen this year. Few movies are as moving as this.
The two are on holiday in Turkey before Sophie starts back up at school. Calum speaks amicably with his ex, even saying “Love you”, because to him she’s still family. Few things of great measure take place or occur in Aftersun; they eat dinner at the resort, take in the cheap entertainment, and call it an early night more often than not. Sophie’s kissed by a boy and her eyes linger on older girls. But there’s more brewing beneath the surface, and the sharp script by writer/director Charlotte Wells layers in the drama through actions and inaction rather than through big monologues or grandiose moments. This is a small, intimate picture, and Wells’ approach on the page and behind the camera serves it well. Aftersun is a deeply personal work, and yet it feels universal. That’s when you know you have something special on your hands.
Not since Sean Baker’s 2017 film The Florida Project have I seen something led by a newcomer that’s been as authentic and perfectly cast as Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal are here. Corio’s simply stunning. The story is told through her eyes and her gaze – both as a child coming of age and briefly as a grown woman wrestling with her past – and through Frankie the film is able to look forward to what’s to come and to reflect on what has been. It’s evocative of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, but takes a more narrative approach to confronting the past, sitting with the present, and contemplating the future. And as for Mescal, he totally encapsulates a man whose inner demons wrestle with his insides while maintaining a calm exterior. He carries books about meditation and practices Tai Chi, yet despite how adoring and caring a father he is, his internal struggle is real and has weight. Calum loves Sophie, but he doesn’t love himself, and that dichotomy is expertly captured in the film’s searing final shot.
There’s a painful, transcendent scene in Aftersun where Sophie karaoke’s R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” beckoning her father to join in while he idly sits there crippled by social anxiety and fear. He’s looking inward while she’s investigating outwards. But later on Calum opens up, showing his moves once more, and holds his daughter in his arms as he forgets his financial woes and the burdens of being human, dancing to the rhythm and the beat. Aftersun understands that parents and children raise each other concurrently; that we can ditch safety and paraglide through the universe in the same motions. That we contemplate and mimic the actions and the emotions of the ones we adore, and that some of our most precious memories are distant movies we rewind and reflect upon. Aftersun is a film about empathy and forgiveness, and it understands how someone we love might not have the capacity to love themselves. I can’t shake it.
“I think it’s nice that we share the same sky.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5