Aftersun is visual poetry that can either lose you in dreamy memories or bore you to tears. I’m somewhere in between, drawn in by the magnificent Mise-en-scène yet dulled by the overlong message.
Sophie (Francesca Corio) reflects on a vacation she spent with her father, Calum (Paul Mescel). During their trip, there’s an underlying existential issue Calum’s facing, yet its contents are left intentionally vague. Aftersun is a coming-of-age story about fatherhood, the joys of being a child, and the emotions our parents hide from us to protect us. Yet it all feels aimless.
Is it about the challenges of fatherhood? The joys of childhood that go away when we’re older, the pain of loss? Where’s the mother? Is she dead? Is Calum divorced? Answers are intentionally laid bare for a story about absorbing moments rather than embracing a narrative arc. Usually, I’m all for an unconventional tale. Nothing is better than being sucked into a world that takes you somewhere else. I’ll always be the guy in the room who will love Jackie and Spencer for being intentional narrative slogs.
Aftersun is a vacation movie about growing up. Sophie is aware something is off with her father despite Calum holding his qualms at bay in front of Sophie. All he wants is for her to have a good time without worrying about her life’s troubles. During her trip, Sophie begins to hook up with boys and is tempted by alcohol. Being eleven, Sophie resists the temptations.
As Sophie comes of age, Calum struggles to stay mature. Brief glimpses only lit by the occasional flickers of a strobe light display a nightlife Calum perhaps shouldn’t be having. During private moments when Sophie is asleep or away from her father, we see Calum smoking on the balcony of his resort. As he exhales his cigarette, Calum paces the balcony with clearly a lot on his mind. During another moment, Calum uncontrollably sobs. We don’t know why this is. It’s never explained, only experienced. Through Sophie’s point of view, we see the portrait of a man who’s a wonderful father but scarred underneath.
Aftersun is a love letter to a man now gone? The film occasionally flashes between time to Sophie in the present, reflecting on her father from the past. The memories of her dad keep Sophie up at night. Not because he was a bad person or a good man, but a complicated individual. Calum always has an open ear and an open heart. He lets Sophie know it’s okay to talk to boys and that she can tell him anything. Once in a while, he could be withdrawn. When he thought she wasn’t looking, Calum would act differently, beholding a man who was going through a tremendous amount of pain.
Sophie’s no fool; she can tell her father isn’t well. However, she doesn’t reach out to him. But how could she? Sophie’s only eleven. There are moments when Sophie can be cruel to her father. Perhaps Sophie regrets these moments as an adult, hoping she could have helped her father rather than ignoring him.
Aftersun feels like a long beautiful memory. The sound design is a soothing ora of waves and wind over a traditional score. Gregory Okes’ cinematography evokes nostalgia by using a flatter color grade. In a paradise filled with deep oranges, the saturation is reduced to give off a Tree of Life feel. Like a Terrance Malick film, the narrative can feel drawn out beyond its intent.
In a logline, Aftersun is a story about a woman who reflects on her complicated father. Unfortunately, the reflection loses its impact halfway through the narrative. I respect debut Director Charlotte Wells’ intent on making a longing, nostalgic narrative. Still, I find it surprising I sat through a ninety-eight-minute film when the story could have been more effective in thirty minutes, maybe less. I love films that take their time. But sometimes there’s not much time that needs to be spent.
The lingering effects of a nostalgia-based dreamlike narrative can only sink its teeth so deep into my soul. Something must pull me in, yet little did. Trying to reconcile that dad wasn’t always a fantastic guy is a familiar theme. I see potential In Wells, and Aftersun is already a critical delight, so she’s got more work to produce. Although Aftersun may not be my cup of tea, I’m interested to see what Charlotte Wells has to bring to the table in the future. After all, Aftersun is aesthetically magnificent. Seeing this is a feature debut is especially promising for any new director.
Aftersun was viewed in conjunction with The Chicago International Film Festival. It will be in theaters October 21.