Movie ReviewAftersunDirected by Charlotte Wells
By Brontë H. Lacsamana Reporter
ONLY recently did I get to watch what I now call the best film from last year — Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, a sincere yet haunting look back at a long-gone father-daughter relationship. It’s a film that takes a while to understand but hits you like a ton of bricks once you do, hence why I saw it for a second time a month after the first.
In many ways, it really does take time to properly get to things that matter. This is definitely true for the film’s director Wells, who was inspired by her own final holiday with her father 20 years earlier.
Aftersun follows Sophie Paterson (played by charming newcomer Frankie Corio), an 11-year-old girl from Ireland who is happy to be on holiday with her father at a beach resort in Turkey. The film uses MiniDV footage interspersed with 35mm-shot scenes of laughter, silence, fun, awkwardness, and brief sadness, as the present-day Sophie tries to reconcile the father she knew with the man that she never did.
The loving yet troubled father, Calum Paterson, is brought to life by Paul Mescal (breakout star of Irish drama Normal People), who eventually garnered an Oscar nomination for Aftersun. He brings a subtle, caring nature to the role, despite the flawed and unpredictable aspects of his character.
Both leads play their parts to perfection, showing a believable chemistry and connection that a close father and daughter would have. This makes the events that come all the more painful, harnessing the raw power of old home video footage that either of the pair casually wielded during their vacation, as anyone would have before the invention of camera phones. The memories depicting Sophie’s coming-of-age mixed with the nurturing yet sometimes turbulent interactions with her fun-loving father convey a painful honesty that doesn’t feel like fiction.
However, the film is more poignant and hits much harder on a second viewing than on the first. By then, you’ll have processed the vague bundle of emotions and unresolved threads presented onscreen. Having reached the end and realizing that it isn’t a straightforward telling of what happened and what to feel about it makes you better able to read the little details the second time around (and feel the pain more when it comes).
My first viewing was online, on my little laptop screen, while my second viewing was on the big screen, care of the A-List Series curation of acclaimed films being shown in the Philippines. I am pleased and grateful that I chose to rewatch this on a bigger screen, so as to appreciate the details more.
(The Film Development Council of the Philippines’ World Cinema Festival is screening this film, along with other acclaimed world cinema titles from 2022, at various Ayala Malls Cinemas until Aug. 29.)
When I first watched Aftersun, I wasn’t immediately compelled to rank it as my favorite or as the best film of last year. It takes a while to understand what Wells is trying to convey, given the mismatch of certain moments with others being an interesting puzzle to work out. In a way, it’s what anyone who has lost someone inevitably feels, rewinding memories to try to understand what it means, went wrong, what could have been.
Sophie even gives it a name in what seems to be a regular small moment in their vacation. She is filming her unwilling, somewhat agitated dad using the miniDV camera, asking him personal questions. Calum refuses to answer, so Sophie turns off the camcorder and says she will instead record him with her “mind camera.”
Aftersun is, in effect, a film from Wells’ own “mind camera.” Though it’s produced with a relatively decent budget and fictionalized to a great extent, it is her output from recording and rewinding her own memories, a beautiful take on how the people we’ve lost live on in fragmented, complex, elusive, and frustratingly incomplete ways. And, in my opinion, it is a blessing to cinema that she shares it with us.
I cried in a certain scene near the end, one that ties the film together by blurring the line between what’s real and what’s imagined. It’s the scene that convinced me to eventually watch it on the big screen. You’ll know it when “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie starts playing and continues in a gradual crescendo towards a stunning needledrop, maybe the best use of the song in any film.
Make no mistake; this isn’t a typical tearjerker. It’s a quiet film that recreates how people immortalize both the romanticized traits and the imperfections of loved ones who have passed and come to terms with how a joyful time can actually hide a deep melancholy that makes the memories bittersweet.
It’s phenomenal, how Wells was able to make a tender yet cohesive work — her debut film! — on such an emotionally charged subject matter with such restraint, careful not to oversell the tragedy. Its brilliance shines through when it fills in the blanks as we, along with Sophie, sift through the rare moments captured years and years ago, both on old home video clips and on her own little mind camera.