Aftersun – London Film Festival 2022 – Film Review

Aftersun perfectly captures that childhood sense of ennui combined with the associated dread at the prospect of being obliged to join one of those annual summer ‘cheap deal’ family package holidays. The film adeptly portrays a child’s despair towards the holiday routine, the cringeworthiness but also takes the time to unveil those formative defining moments of a quintessential British holiday. Aftersun, implicitly, conjures up images of pantomime-like holiday camps, thereby creating that shared experience in an emotional, striking feature debut from Charlotte Wells. As its premise, Aftersun follows eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal) on holiday in Turkey, from a child’s eye view, with grainy footage and nostalgic 90s electronic devices firmly embedding the audience within Sophie’s world and her unique voice. The entire film is touching as, the holiday photos taken, a song heard or a signature smell, associated with a holiday, may unexpectedly trigger those holiday memories, good or bad.

Wells utilises these storytelling devices expertly, never explicitly revealing their impact on the characters or instantly revealing the profound effect of unarticulated sentiments. Wells therefore lulls audiences in to believing that Aftersun’s premise is a simple one. As such, Aftersun surprises with an understated, emotionally complex and nuanced portrait of the hidden, unexpressed needs of a parent who may be misconstrued by their children.

Aftersun has unearthed an acting delight in Corio, in her acting debut, as the young Sophie to counteract Mescal’s Calum. The chemistry between them is mesmerising and enjoyable to absorb. But so is Wells’ uncanny ability to draw the audience in to watching their holiday antics. There is also something remarkably British about Aftersun and this summer holiday depiction, assisted by camera angles at Sophie’s eye level witnessing the mundane. We follow Sophie’s gaze as we view the sky from her height, whilst she paddles in the pool, and we observe older teenagers too, with hints of a coming-of-age narrative. Wells expertly navigates us through Sophie’s experiences meaning that when the adult world creates hurt and confusion for Sophie, we can resonate with that too. It is an extraordinary accomplishment that Aftersun is so rich with emotion given the lack of action during Sophie and Calum’s holiday.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun
Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun

Still, Aftersun is a beautiful, poetic experience which dares us to look beneath the veneer and embrace an unexplained degree of melancholy. An iconic 1990s soundtrack, including Catatonia’s Road Rage and R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion, also amplifies such emotion and there is one key song that audiences will appreciate differently after watching Aftersun. Mescal excels in his role as a young father and embraces that 90s Indie music scene exquisitely, it will be difficult not to associate him with the various needle drops as he creates a new category of ‘dad dancing.’ It is a poignant and powerful performance to add to Mescal’s ever-growing list of credentials.

Aftersun embraces silences and ambiguity as much as it visually demonstrates a sense of isolation whilst holidaying. Wells is unafraid to use long takes to enunciate feelings of helplessness and despair, particularly when holiday costs unwittingly mount up. Her direction is impressively supportive, non-judgemental but never omnipresent with a tender steer towards the depth of emotion. Yet, the film maintains a consistent, understated mood without melodrama and therefore delivers unexpected emotional punches.

It is difficult to describe Aftersun fully as it is reliant on minimalism thus allowing the film the time to develop, at a slow pace, building the emotional foundations to devastate. It is purely a film to be experienced emotionally, without any spoilers. That is Aftersun’s beauty – its ambiguity and subtlety mean that we can spend time with Calum and Sophie devoid of unnecessary plot distractions in this personal tale designed to invoke audience reflection on their own personal circumstances. Wells’ power to interweave a semi autobiographical narrative and equally to craft a shared experience catapults her to the international stage as a remarkable talent not to be ignored.

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