Losing someone close to us without knowing who they really were is a painful experience. It isn’t as traumatic, though, as we might think. Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun” explores the vagueness of that trauma through the lens of a young girl, Sophie (Frankie Corio), as she reflects in her mind’s eye the last holiday with her dad, Calum, portrayed by a very strong Paul Mescal.
Interestingly, the pain associated with loss doesn’t drive “Aftersun,” Wells’ feature debut film. It seems that everything that would cause pain has been dealt with, though vagaries of that pain seep into certain scenes, namely with Calum, who takes his daughter on holiday to Turkey. Gregory Oke’s cinematography causes a stir. On the one hand, you want to leap out of your theater seat in the middle of the film to contact your travel professional to book your next holiday to Turkey. Oke creates a nearly sensual feeling about the rocky terrain of the country. On the other hand, Oke, Wells, and the cast pull us back into the moment – the incorrect reservations, the human foibles that form our intuition.
Sophie is perceptive; she senses something’s wrong with Calum. Wells allows her to be innocent, though, to enjoy the time away from the grind.
Mescal impressed in Olivia Colman’s “The Lost Daughter” last year, and his method approach to acting shines in “Aftersun,” playing Calum’s struggles in a fragmented way. Calum has a secret she does not know or is uncomfortable telling Sophie. Because Wells told this story from Sophie’s point of view, Mescal’s fragmented approach becomes a literal protective mechanism; human brains compartmentalize trauma, which is why much of Calum’s challenges are vague. Blair McClendon’s editing plays into this aspect of the film, carrying the camera’s hazy point of view through rapid-fire editing, especially in the third act. The rapid-fire editing is not of the CBM variety; it is purposeful in conveying a rapid decline for both, marked with hope.
Music informs a good portion of “Aftersun.” Oliver Coates’ score contextualizes Sophie’s journey, while Calum’s is marked through popular songs. There’s a moment in the film marked through one of Queen’s songs. The feeling this evokes when the music, the editing, and the cinematography come together is stunning.
“Aftersun” ultimately offers Calum’s secret from Sophie’s vantage point, and that’s what makes the story worthwhile – how do our own feelings influence, no, impact our perceptions of those we’ve loved and lost within happier memories? Innocence eventually fades away toward responsibilities and life choices. Calum made a life choice, but Wells depicts a morally ambiguous fight within Calum that Mescal hits home – we don’t get to choose some aspects of our lives. They are ingrained in our DNA, which plays out in Sophie’s life when we eventually see her as an adult (Celia Rowlson-Hall). We still question the decisions of others because we don’t get to ask important questions; it remains vague and ultimately up to intuition.
“Aftersun” works precisely because of its vagueness. Wells’ use of fragmented yet familiar memories combined with the innocence of the time and the realization of memories and experience fuels this experience. And make no mistake, “Aftersun” is an experience, much like Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project.”
The experience that Wells creates in “Aftersun,” contrasted with innocence and responsibility, will stick with you long after the house lights come up. Frankie Corio is an actress to watch, and Paul Mescal certainly has this reviewer’s attention.