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An 11-year-old girl dozes off in bed in the foreground. The girl’s father is seen through the plate-glass door struggling to light a cigarette on the balcony beyond while being constrained by the cast covering his right arm. After completing his task, he swings his arms forth, upward, and downward in a rhythmic motion that may be a dreaming imitation of a Tai Chi move. Since the camera doesn’t zoom in and there are obstacles in his path, it’s unclear what exactly is happening to him. At the end of the day, when his child is asleep, the father snatches this brief period of alone. There is something almost creepy about the situation as the father moves in tune with the daughter’s slow breathing. Daughter, age 11, sleeps through it all.
But precisely what is “it”?
The sequence above, which occurs early on, when we’re still gaining our bearings, is crucial to Charlotte Wells’ poignant debut film “Aftersun,” which follows a father-daughter vacation at a budget resort in Turkey. Perhaps since Sophie (Frankie Corio) is a young child, her father, and just about to reach the age where she is separating herself and becoming her own person, there is something enigmatic about Calum (Paul Mescal).
It’s difficult to pinpoint or even identify the cause of the unease in the sequence, especially since Calum and Sophie are generally having a good time on their trip. Sometimes there is conflict between parents and children, but it’s never toxic or terrible. However, the depths have apparently been sounded. Even though she is unable to express what she feels, the youngster is perceptive and can sense things (although often she can). She is more perceptive than her father believes. Children, though, are tough. It’s possible to sympathize with a parent’s existential angst and also enjoy yourself meeting new people at the arcade. Even so, both events take place at once. “Aftersun” recognizes the numerous tracks on which consciousness operates. The multi-level awareness is not present in the conversation, but it is present in the film’s soft rhythms, the editorial decisions, and Wells’ method, which is patient and sensitive.
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Since Sophie’s parents aren’t together, she primarily lives with her mother. Calum talks of moving into a new house, giving Sophie her own room, and possibly launching a new business with a man he calls “Keith,” but it’s clear from the way he talks that he hardly believes in any of it. For him, something is not right. Is he a party animal? He had his first child at an early age. His life hasn’t quite turned out the way he had intended, according to several “clues.” He has publications on Tai Chi and meditation that propose a short-term practice as a strategy to reduce anxiety. He is burdened by his worries. Sophie can feel it. It’s stressful when she misplaces her scuba mask, and she apologizes and admits she understands it’s pricey. Calum is surprised by her comment. He believed his fears were subtly concealed. Although he may be a little lost, Calum certainly cares for his daughter. He subsequently apologizes to her for his actions after they have a brief argument. He is a good father. Together, they exude a cozy, personal, and familiar atmosphere.
While it is obvious that “Aftersun” is narrated from Sophie’s perspective, observant viewers will note that there are several instances in which Sophie is not there. The movie is thus told from the perspective of an older Sophie, who is also a new parent, as she reflects on this trip and wonders what her father may have been going through. She is aware of her personal memories of the trip. But what was happening to him?
Wells intercuts the trip with bizarre, dream-like “rave” scenes, in which an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall, whose 2016 directorial debut “Ma” I so admired and reviewed for this site), stands on a crowded dance floor and catches glimpses of her father writhing to the music in the sporadic lightning flashes of the strobe lights. She desires to approach him, hold him, and touch him. Today, Sophie is a grownup. She now has a much better understanding of him. What if she could communicate with him? Even then, they would still have a ton to discuss. “Aftersun” functions as a kind of creative empathy. Sophie is now able to see things that she was previously unable to see.
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The movie’s mournful tune of an almost elegiac sweetness comes from this once-distant point of view and slightly detached position. The resort is cheap and there is construction going on, but for now it doesn’t matter because Calum and Sophie are having ice cream, taking mud baths, and swimming in the sunshine. Being together is what important. Mescal, who was so excellent in “Normal People,” provides such an earthy, tactile performance that is rooted in the particulars. There are brief moments of anxiety and self-hatred, his worries about not being good enough, failing as a provider or failing her, all the things he feels he must hide—and, for the most part, does hide.
Frankie Corio is a recent arrival. She has a natural presence and is perceptive and attentive. Corio and Mescal have an incredible dynamic since they are so at ease with one another. They enjoy each other’s company and are fun and considerate, but they can also injure each other. Of course, this relationship is a testament to Mescal and Corio, but it’s also a testament to Wells’ talents for casting and dealing with performers.
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Gregory Oke, the director of photography, destabilizes the point of view by frequently keeping the frame off-center and using a soft, rich, saturated color scheme. Similar to adult Sophie’s glimpses of him at the rave, Calum is frequently seen through a doorway or as a reflection—in a mirror or television screen—that is obscured, half-there, half-not-there; the strobe is so intense that it is impossible to see him in full or perceive him as being there and in the flesh. Jovan Ajder, the sound designer, performs excellent work as well, especially in a moment where Calum sneaks down to the beach in the middle of the night to go swimming. As the darkness engulfs Calum, the sound of lapping waves gradually intensifies into a rumbling surf.
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Tuesday, a Wells short film from 2015, could be considered as an early version of “Aftersun.” Even though her mother seemed to be against it, a college student spends Tuesday evenings at her dad’s house. Instead of spying, the youngster ambles into her father’s vacant rooms, touching his possessions like his guitar and a sweater. He isn’t present. He’s not here. Has he forgotten that it is Tuesday? A young woman longs to understand a man who is so near her, yet is so far away that he might as well not be there at all in the powerful short film “Tuesday.”
I still recall the exact moment when I felt, rather than just intellectually, how young my parents were when they had me. I was gazing at a picture of my father holding me when I was two years old. At the time, he was roughly 26 years old. I fixed my attention on his face, noticing its supple curves, the light in his eyes, and the soft way he gripped my hand (most likely to prevent me from yanking his spectacles off his face). My perception of time seemed to telescopically extend on both ends. When I was 26, I remembered how immature and young I was. I still find it hard to believe he was that young. He was such a loving father. I wish I could ask him questions about his life. I wish I could ask him how he felt about it all. Wells’ admirable attempt to achieve the same is “Aftersun.”
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