Memory fails to give the information needed in this striking, thought-provoking debut
Director: Charlotte Wells
Cast: Paul Mescal (Calum), Frankie Corio (Sophie), Celia Rowlson-Hall (Adult Sophie), Brooklyn Toulson (Michael), Sally Messham (Belinda), Spike Fearn (Olly), Harry Perdios (Toby)
Memories resemble half-remembered dreams more than we like to think. No matter how hard we try, we are always constrained in what recollect: if we didn’t notice or understand it at the time, trying to remember every detail of an event can be like trying to assemble a jigsaw using the final picture and many blank pieces. It’s a core theme from Charlotte Well’s fascinating, thought-provoking, debut picture, a fictional memory piece unlike anything else.
In the late 90s, 31-year-old Calum (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio), go on a package holiday to Turkey. For Sophie, this was an exciting holiday of a lifetime. But, looking back on the holiday decades later, the now 31-year Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) knows something was wrong. Her father was a far more fragile, delicate man than her 11-year-old self could hope to realise. But her attempt to understand this will be forever restricted by her memories and the few camcorder films she has of the holiday.
Well’s film is both a challenging, intriguing musing on the nature and unknowability of memories, and a superb presentation of a loving father-and-daughter relationship. What it doesn’t give you at any points are easy or obvious answers. There are no revelations, no breakthroughs, no sudden dramatic recollections that reposition everything. There isn’t even a confirmation of what exactly happened to the father after 11-year-old Sophie flew back home to her mother. There is a sense of unease throughout, which plays against the childhood joy in many of the scenes. We know something is amiss. But this isn’t about adult Sophie trying to solve a puzzle: it’s clear she never well. She can assemble the jigsaw, using the final picture, but the blank pieces will always remain blank.
To film this, Wells (with great confidence and skill for a first-time director) uses a number of unshowy but intelligent camera angles and film stocks. The film opens with home recordings, before images rewind and granulate before our eyes. Reflecting how memories are never quite what we need them to be, but are reliant on what we were focusing our attention on at the time, the film frequently concentrates visually on the wrong things while important events happen just out of shot.
That opening camcorder scene sees Calum, with weary firmness, asking Sophie to turn off the camera rather than answer questions about where he wanted his life to be now when he was 11. When we reach this moment again in the film’s flashback structure (which we now realise is crucial to understanding Calum’s depression and feelings of inadequacy), the film is constrained by what Sophie was focusing on at the time. So, we focus rigidly on the small television in the hotel room Sophie was playing her recording on, meaning we only see events in the room on hazy TV-screen reflections and the small part of the mirror visible on screen.
This recurs throughout. We focus on character’s legs or the skydivers floating down the Turkish sky (the activity Sophie wanted to do that Calum ruled out because she was too young). A polaroid picture slowly developing on the table during their meal together on the final night. Other scenes that had a strong impact on a child play out full screen: her encounters with a group of older children who play pool with her. Her first flirtation with a boy her own age, that ends with a kiss (though she ‘remembers’ more clearly other children hammering on the roof above them).
Above all, she has many clear memories of her father. Aftersun is a beautiful depiction of a loving relationship between father and daughter. Sophie remembers clearly the shared jokes (mocking a tour guide, mucking around in a pool). She remembers the insistence her father tried to teach her self-defence moves, the way he carefully applied her sun cream, the night they threw bread rolls and ran away from a tour guide concert, teaching her his tai chi moves while she playfully imitated him. It’s a warm, intimate, extremely genuine relationship superbly bought to life.
But she also remembers harsher moments. The times her father would go quiet. The way he wouldn’t tell her how he broke his arm (he wears a cast for the first few days of their holiday). The moment he adamantly refuses to sing karaoke with her on stage – and her stubborn insistence to perform REM alone – before he passes out in their hotel room, leaving her locked out. Flashes of silence or ennui which he tried to hide from her, but she can just about understand now.
And it’s clearer to us, not least from the brilliance of Paul Mescal’s performance. Few actors can convey such deep, gut-wrenching pain and emotional turbulence under a confident exterior. Mescal looks like a happy-go-lucky guy, but every movement is tinged with an unknowable sadness. At times he seems crushed. It’s clear he’s working overtime to (largely successfully) hide this from his daughter. But still he’ll talk briefly about his own unhappy childhood, marvel that reaching 30 was “hard enough” when someone asks what he will do at 40, talks about future plans he doesn’t seem to quite believe in and uses tai chi and meditation to suppress some deep emotional trauma.
Adult Sophie – and the film – can only imagine what he might be going through, or what caused this spiritual crisis. Wells throws in scenes of Calum alone, which clearly can’t be memories (Sophie isn’t there) – are these Sophie’s imaginations and interpolations? Her attempts to fill in the gaps? Is she imaging her father walking alone through the streets at night, or weeping uncontrollably in his hotel room after she leaves? Is this her attempt to fill the gaps, just as a conversation where Calum assures Sophie she can always talk to him about anything is played in long shot, like Sophie remembers it but didn’t realise its importance at the time.
There is a recurring visual intercut of the adult Sophie watching what looks like an unaged Calum dancing in a club, strobe lighting only intermittently lighting his face. The film’s emotional closing moments, cut to a Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure, finally help us to understand what we might be seeing here, the closest thing to a reveal (unveiled during a virtuoso rotating transition shot which takes us through multiple locations and timelines in a single fluid movement) the film has.
At the centre of much of this is an extraordinary performance from Frankie Corio as Sophie, a precociously talented child who gets a perfect balance between understanding and ignorance, and brilliantly communicates that age when children are starting to form independent character and interests away from their parents.
Aftersun is a thought-provoking, dynamic and challenging piece of cinema, that lingered with me for days after seeing it. Sad but also strangely joyous at times, acted with perfection, it marks Wells as a talent to watch.