Review: ‘Aftersun’ is tenderly experimental diary of father-daughter memories


 “Aftersun” is a shining example of a film that takes a more impressionistic approach for a mood piece that you won’t soon forget.

WTOP’s Jason Fraley reviews ‘Aftersun’

Most movies tell a plot-driven story with a traditional narrative of twists and turns. Other films take a more impressionistic approach for a mood piece that you won’t soon forget.

Great movies can be made in both styles, but “Aftersun” is a shining example of the latter as Scottish feature debut filmmaker Charlotte Wells crafts a tenderly experimental journal that she calls “emotionally autobiographical” about her father who died when she was 16.

In the cinematic version, the 30-something Sophie reflects on a vacation to Turkey that she took with her 30-something father Calum some 20 years earlier in the ’90s. Documenting the entire trip on an old-school camcorder, we see Sophie’s memories — some real, some imagined — as she tries to reconcile the father that she knew with the man that she didn’t.

The father is authentically played by Paul Mescal, the Emmy-nominated star of the BBC’s “Normal People” (2020) and films like “The Lost Daughter” (2021), though he is known to the tabloids for dating rock star musician Phoebe Bridgers. His performance is admirably layered, smiling for his daughter on the surface while oozing pain in his private moments.

We absolutely believe his fatherly bond with Sophie, played brilliantly by child star Frankie Corio, who carries the movie on her short shoulders. She’s a shoe-in to win Best Youth Performance at the Washington Area Film Critics Association Awards when we vote next month thanks to an adorable precociousness as she figures out the world around her.

Throughout the film, Welles shows Sophie’s “female gaze” in carefully inserted point-of-view shots, charting her coming-of-age awakening by watching young couples’ public displays of affection. A boyfriend puts his arms around his girlfriend to do the “Macarena.” Another rubs sunscreen on his girlfriend. Another puts his hand around his girlfriend at the bar.

Other P.O.V. shots also show Sophie’s view of indoor spaces, gazing through the keyhole of a door or an upside-down point-of-view shot as she sprawls on the edge of the bed (like the shot of Cary Grant approaching the bed in Hitchcock’s “Notorious”), only here it’s intercut with a frame over her father’s shoulder in the bathroom looking back at Sophie in a mirror.

While such “subjective camera” moments bring us inside the mind of Sophie, Wells’ “objective camera” makes a deeper statement about the fatalistic world around us. It exists in a way that Yasujirō Ozu captured in Japanese masterpieces like “Late Spring” (1949), which coincidentally watched a daughter outgrow her father, but in much different terms.

In “Aftersun,” Wells paints a cross-section of their hotel wall. On the left side, Sophie sits in a chair playing on her phone in the yellow lighting of the bedside lamp. On the right side, her father sits on the edge of the bathtub painstakingly trying to cut a cast off his arm. His lighting is symbolically blue, perhaps hinting as his growing depression as a single father.

In another static shot, the left of the frame shows the father in the hotel mirror, while the right of the frame shows a real-time feed of the camcorder hooked to the hotel TV screen. As the father demonstrates how to zoom the camera, we see the TV image zoom in. After a bit, they turn the TV off, but you can still see the father and daughter in the TV reflection.

Truly, you won’t find a better example of a filmmaker finding dynamic ways to visually fracture an intimate space: shadows on a wall, reflections on table surfaces, even have a whole conversation as we watch a Polaroid picture develop. These aren’t just nifty tricks for snazzy shots; they speak to the theme of memory and time. This is a FILMMAKER.

Wells saves her best for last in a powerhouse finale of emotional fireworks, as the father dances to Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” in the strobe light of a rave. Between flashes of the father, we also see flashes of Young Sophie and Adult Sophie dancing with her dad amid the flashing lights to the lyrics, “This is our last dance. This is ourselves.”

For all this, Wells earned a Golden Camera nomination at the Cannes Film Festival. Here’s hoping Oscar nominations follow in the way that “Moonlight” earned Best Picture and Best Director nods for Barry Jenkins, who coincidentally produces “Aftersun.” A24 has a great track record for awards campaigns, but alas, talking Oscar chances this early is reductive.

Let’s celebrate the film on its own terms. Of course, the film won’t be for everyone due to experimental shots that hold forever. Before you complain, consider what the image is communicating about a sleeping daughter in the foreground and a father’s brief breather on the balcony, setting up a later inverse shot as the daughter finds the father passed out.

Who are we to tell Wells when to cut? It’s her debut feature about the dad she lost, damnit. She can hold these shots as long as she wants — like a memory we don’t want to let go.

4.5 stars


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