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Review: ‘Aftersun’ is a tenderly experimental diary of father-daughter memories

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“Aftersun” is a shining example of a film that takes a more impressionistic approach for a mood piece you won’t soon forget.

OMCP’s Jason Fraley reviews “Aftersun”

Most movies tell a plot-driven story with a traditional twist-and-turn narrative. Other movies take a more impressionistic approach for a mood piece you won’t soon forget.

Great films can be made in either style, but ‘Aftersun’ is a shining example of the latter as Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells crafts a tenderly experimental diary she calls “emotionally autobiographical” about her father who died when she was 16.

In the film version, 30-something Sophie looks back on a vacation to Turkey she took with her 30-something father Calum some 20 years earlier in the 1990s. Documenting the entire trip on a camcorder at the old, we see Sophie’s memories – some real, some imagined – as she tries to reconcile the father she knew with the man she didn’t know.

The father is authentically played by Paul Mescal, the Emmy-nominated star of BBC’s ‘Normal People’ (2020) and films like “The Lost Daughter” (2021), although he is known in the tabloids for dating a rock star musician Phoebe Bridger. Her performance is beautifully layered, smiling for her daughter on the surface while oozing pain in her private moments.

We absolutely believe in his paternal bond with Sophie, brilliantly played by child star Frankie Corio, who carries the film on his short shoulders. It is a shoe to win the best performance of young people in Washington Area Film Critics Association Award in our vote next month thanks to an adorable precociousness in understanding the world around him.

Throughout the film, Welles shows Sophie’s “feminine gaze” in carefully inserted point-of-view shots, tracing her rise to adulthood by watching young couples’ public displays of affection. A boyfriend puts his arms around his girlfriend to do the “Macarena”. Another rubs sunscreen on his girlfriend. Another puts his hand around his girlfriend at the bar.

Other POV shots also show Sophie’s view of interior spaces, looking through the keyhole of a door or an upside-down vantage point as she sprawled on the edge of the bed ( like the shot of Cary Grant approaching the bed in Hitchcock’s “Notorious”), only here it’s intercut with a frame over his father’s shoulder in the bathroom looking at Sophie in a mirror.

While such “subjective camera” moments bring us inside Sophie’s mind, Wells’ “objective camera” makes a deeper statement about the fatalistic world around us. There is a way that Yasujirō Ozu captured in Japanese masterpieces like “Late Spring” (1949), which saw a daughter coincidentally outgrow her father, but in very different terms.

In “Aftersun”, Wells paints a cross section of their hotel wall. On the left side, Sophie is sitting in a chair playing on her phone in the yellow lighting of the bedside lamp. On the right side, her father sits on the edge of the tub painfully trying to cut a cast off his arm. His lighting is symbolically blue, possibly alluding to his growing depression as a single father.

In another static shot, the left of the frame shows the father in the hotel mirror, while the right of the frame shows a real-time camcorder feed hanging from the hotel television screen. As the father demonstrates how to zoom the camera, we see the TV picture zooming. After a while they turn off the TV, but you can still see the father and daughter in the reflection of the TV.

Truly, you won’t find a better example of a filmmaker finding dynamic ways to visually fracture an intimate space: shadows on a wall, reflections on table surfaces, even an entire conversation as we watch an image. Polaroid expand. These aren’t just nifty tricks for stunning photos; they talk about the theme of memory and time. He is a FILMAST.

Wells saves his best for last in a powerful finale of emotional fireworks, as the father dances to Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” in the strobe light of a rave. Between the flashes of the father, we also see flashes of Young Sophie and Adult Sophie dancing with her dad amid flashing lights of the lyrics, “This is our last dance. This is ourselves.

For all of this, Wells earned a Camera d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival. Hopefully, Oscar nominations follow in the same way that “Moonlight” won Best Picture and Best Director for Barry Jenkins, who coincidentally produces “Aftersun.” A24 has an excellent track record for awards campaigns, but alas, talking about Oscar’s chances so early on is reductive.

Let’s celebrate the film on its own terms. Of course, the movie won’t appeal to everyone due to experimental shots that last forever. Before you complain, consider what the image communicates about a sleeping daughter in the foreground and a father’s brief breath on the balcony, setting up a reverse shot later when the daughter discovers that the father fainted.

Who are we to tell Wells when to cut? This is her first feature film about the father she lost, damn it. She can keep these snaps as long as she wants, like a memory we don’t want to give up.

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