One of memory’s cruelest tricks is reminding us that we often didn’t know we were living our most important moments. Cruelty lies at the heart of this wonderfully dark and dark debut feature from Charlotte Wells. Paul Mescal is a masked Scotsman as Callum, a young father vacationing in Turkey with Sophie (Frankie Curio), his 11-year-old daughter, in the late 1990s. This scenario is fraught with potential threat. Could Sophie disappear? What about those older boys lurking in the back of the resort? The film is unburdened with such gimcrack drama that, unconcerned with three-act structures, it gently avoids the conflicts that screenwriting experts often demand. Set aside cheap expectations.
Aftersson is relaxed about her location, neither mocking the holiday package aesthetic nor celebrating the now-unfashionable organized pastime. The director does well to let us see the action through the unsuspecting gaze of a child and the wistful musings of an adult woman. Shown only by cursory glance, the filmmaker — like Wells, now apparently living in the States — has vacation videotapes to help reassemble her past. Cut from Gregory Oak’s crisper 35mm video footage, it shows a happy couple joking and waving their way from the pool to the bedroom to the airport. However, something always pulls the perfect flow. Aftersun’s greatest achievement is gradually revealing the imminence of tragedy, which, while not explicitly confirmed, feels inevitable through the already celebrated final shot. It’s hard to think of another movie that has pulled off this trick so effectively.
None of this can hope to work well without strong performances by both teams. Although hampered by the conditions of the lockdown, Mescal and Curio somehow create an uncannily strong relationship. Separated from the baby’s mother, though still apparently on decent terms, Callum appears more as an older brother than as a father, but we see his efforts – in a very millennial way – to establish a benign hierarchy. “You can talk to me about anything—no matter what parties you go to, no matter what boys you meet, whatever drugs you take,” he says, a voice full of North Atlantic embarrassment over exposed emotion. Maskal hides a nagging unhappiness that only takes full control when Callum is not in direct contact with his daughter. There is a feeling that the man is eager to put his head in his hands.
Aftersun is about noticing what we didn’t notice back then (something more prevalent in the age of ubiquitous video recording). All this is implied. Koryo’s surprisingly natural and underpowered performance gives us a clever kid who notices when things are awry but isn’t yet mature enough to piece together the sinister pieces of a forbidden whole. Aftersun is a sad movie that is mostly concerned with a young man’s happiness.
In fact, swipe the photo for a quick walk and you might mistake it for nostalgia. The cinematography is characterized by the saturated, outdated quality of the Kodak Instamatic. The songs were chosen not for their retrospective splendor—you’ll hear in vain to My Bloody Valentine—but for their ubiquity in contemporary Mediterranean resorts. The fulcrum of the film comes when Frankie, in a karaoke session, sings popular American classics of the time with just enough caustic honking to sound human but not so much as to push the scene into comedic territory. It all comes together as a gently wound package of fantasy and regret.
Produced by Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, Aftersun premiered in Cannes’ quieter International Critics Week sidebar to parties Welles never dared dream of. Now, the movie has already entered the critics’ top ten list and is sure to face backlash. He will survive it. One for the ages.
Aftersun was released on Friday, November 18th
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