‘Aftersun’ Review: Heartbreaking Father-Daughter Trip Down Memory Lane (New York Film Festival 2022)

With the more abundant availability of tools such as the video recorder and disposable photo camera for recording and perceiving key family moments, the general consumer has been able to keep these precious moments forever in a capsule to revisit for the rest of their lives, but this came at a potential cost. The cost is clear if you spend all the time recording these moments. But, are you spending any time actually living them? It then begs the question: is it better to record said memory to have it replayable forever in your television or scrapbook, or is it better to live it at the moment and preserve the hazy recollection in your head as it drifts away as the years go by? The idea of memory and how we remember our shared collective experiences is something Charlotte Wells decidedly explores in her feature film debut Aftersun.

Aftersun explores the hazy recollection of the brief vacation of 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) with her naïve and idealistic father, Calum (Paul Mescal). What follows is a series of unfolding events, both seemingly real memories, but others are re-creations or fabrications of the events that unfolded that summer 20 years prior. Charlotte Wells carefully constructed a beautiful, harrowing piece that feels personal and profound. The film plays a lot with the visual aesthetic of the MiniDV footage, which evokes a deep-rooted sense of nostalgia, but a specific type of nostalgia, geared towards millennials since we were the ones that grew up with those digital video recorders as opposed to the VHS video recorders back in the late 90s. The setting of this idealistic summer contrasted with the darkness that looms over the father specifically.

This depressing coming-of-age narrative that unfolds sets the tone beautifully for what the audience will be experiencing. It plays with the concept of memory a lot in many ways. Aftersun depicts the many ways how we perceive memories, how specific instances can define our lives and the way we fill in the blanks when we are unsure of what happened, or we forget, of how unreliable memories and events are in our heads. Of course, the movie itself is built upon the remembrance of Sophie as an adult, recollecting what transpired in that hotel 20 years prior, so the film is already setting itself up for contradictions and inconsistencies. But that’s indeed the nature of memories. Sometimes things can become so traumatic and depressing that you inadvertently or unconsciously try your best to repress, forget or replace what happened with something hopefully better. This is somewhat the case in Aftersun, but in other instances, the film shows how harrowing, dire, and strained the relationship between Sophie and Calum gets.

The film is juxtaposed with an abstract set piece of strobing lights and an intense party sequence, where Calum is dancing aimlessly in a trance-like way. It’s an image that we come back to a couple of times through the film, showing the mental deterioration of Sophie’s father, represented by how hectic the sequence progressively gets. It’s a beautiful way to showcase the anxieties and instabilities Paul Mescal’s character is feeling and how hopeless Sophie seems to feel by being unable to get him out of this otherworldly sequence. Paul Mescal crafts a layered, subdued, and melancholically quiet performance as Calum, a divorcee trying to retain some semblance of a relationship with his sort of estranged daughter. He tries his best to show Sophie a good time while on vacation while pushing down the deep seeded depression he’s going through. He’s a tour de force, ranging from fun and outgoing to borderline suicidal.

He’s erratic, caring, nostalgic, and somber all at the same time. Calum constantly seems to be battling demons left and right. Frankie Corio plays an enigmatic and curious 11-year-old Sophie. She clearly is brilliant and curious, but sort of introverted; Sophie is just at the cusp of trying to be free and come into her own. She cares for her father but clearly knows something is wrong with him, even if she can’t fully figure it out or pinpoint what’s the issue. Yet, they both share a deep connection and feel authentic and grounded. Aftersun is paced methodically well, letting the characters breathe and slowly explore their arcs in an interesting and introspective way. The film seems like it eavesdrops on conversations or moments one shouldn’t be in the room as we explore Calum’s unpredictable behaviors.

The film is littered with sequentially abstract scenes. What I mean by this is that there’s scenes that don’t really make sense one after the other, in a logical sense. At one moment, Calum has a cat; at another, he doesn’t. Later on, Sophie hangs out with some older kids; in another, she builds a relationship with a kid that’s her own her age, and in one instance, Calum disappears on the beach only to reappear the next day in the hotel room naked as if he’s never left said room, to begin with. It’s all very hazy and fuzzy, just like recollecting memories. It plays with the unreliable narrator, which in this case is Sophie, as the film has to fill in the gaps, even if they don’t make much sense, adding to the ambiguity of her relationship and downturn of Calum. The usage of specific 90’s references helps cement this period piece very well, ranging from having the ‘Macarena’ to Sophie wearing a ‘NO FEAR’ hat.

Aftersun explores our complex relationships with the people we love. It also channels how we perceive our memories and how complex and messy it can be when you recollect the past and have to deal with the inevitability of trauma and happiness all blended together. It’s beautiful, gut-wrenching, and reflective, a genuine look into how difficult it can be to hold on to the recollection of loved ones.

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