starring Paul Mescal, Francesca Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Brooklyn Toulson
written and directed by Charlotte Wells
by Walter Chaw My parents are dead; my in-laws, too. Us outliving them is how they would've wanted it, and that's the wonder of surviving, isn't it, that this is what happens when everything works out? My dad has been dead for 19 years now, and that anniversary is coming up soon. I'm bad with dates, but my body seems to remember, and I can feel him retreating in my memory. I can't really recall what his laugh sounded like anymore. We weren't the kind of family that took home movies. I'm careful not to disturb the pile of dead leaves that is my childhood, though, because what if there's nothing in the middle of all those paper-thin fragments? Charlotte Wells's Aftersun is about trying to piece together who your father used to be once he's gone: dead or dead enough; it's never clear which it is in Wells's movie, but it hardly matters. We can glean a traumatic event has shaken Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), who turns to a small pile of old DV videotapes she took as an 11-year-old on a trip to Greece with her dad in search of answers to questions she doesn't know how to ask. The questions the film itself asks are elliptical, elusive, as diaphanous as the images Wells puts together to present the insubstantial nothing that's left over after all this time. I'm reminded of childish experiments with microscopes, looking at a housefly's wing under magnification to find hundreds of opaque cells joined in an unknowable order, a jumble, that doesn't give any insight into the bigger picture, much less its function. Viewed in microcosm, anything is just confused nothing.
Young Sophie (Frankie Coro) is a strong-willed child, playful and independent. She wants to hang out with the older kids, shooting pool and trying out this kissing thing and the different skills required to advance in the game of puberty. One night, she stays out later than she should, angry because her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), has gotten a little drunk and surly and refused to perform a karaoke of an R.E.M. song with her at their resort. She soldiers through it on her own, part humiliated/part martyred, and then doesn't look at him when he says he's going to bed. She gets lost, gets found, and we see images of her father walking into the ocean from a perspective that couldn't have been captured on videotape, so...what is it? Fantasy? When Sophie returns to their room, he's naked and washed ashore like a drowned sailor on her bed. She throws a sheet over him, and in the morning, at a mud spring once visited by Cleopatra, he apologizes to her over and over again for the way he acted, with no response from her at all. So is it a dream that he's died or a metaphor for their relationship? A metaphor for any relationship between a parent and a child when a bit of trust has chipped off its edges? We start at a full load of good faith with our kids and erode it as we go, and I don't think, once shrunk, any of it ever really grows back. The lessons you teach as a parent are not that you're infallible but that you can own your brokenness and apologize with your whole heart. If you're good at this, you make functional humans and enjoy a healthy relationship with your grown children. And if you're bad at it, you make a fucking mess of every single important thing in this life in your noisome wake.
Caleb has left a mess. The "current" timeline of Aftersun is told mostly in strobe lights and screaming faces while we, with Sophie, pore over the intimate particulars of that one magic summer little Sophie wishes could go on forever for clues as to what Caleb was hiding back then--the embryonic beginnings of calamity he had maybe begun to nurse there, at her happiest. But for that one night of disconnect, Caleb is doting and attentive. He finds things for them to do, sets guardrails, acts goofy and dances even though it embarrasses her, and coaxes her out on the dancefloor because she loves him so much and needs him, too. We piece together that Caleb's separated from Sophie's mother and this time they're spending together is so desperate because she doesn't see him that much. There's video Caleb's taken of the day he puts her on a plane with a stewardess ("I don't need a babysitter, you know"), in which he pans the camera back and forth to follow her snaking through the line until she's out of sight. She knows he's watching her and makes him laugh with funny poses and surprise faces. Then we see the reverse, which no camera could have captured, of Caleb closing the camera and turning and walking down a corridor through a set of double doors into the rest of their lives. Aftersun is a simulation of how our minds fill in the lacunae of our past--how just as film is composed of windows of light separated by gulfs of nothing, our memories are a mash of things as they happened and the fictions we use as connective tissue when slides are missing. One theory of sound reproduction is that analog is "purer" than digital because digital replaces naturally-occurring lacunae with fabricated information. Our brains are quantum; imagine the substitutions firing off even in real-time, much less recollection. Aftersun is a film about how we remember. And although it feels more like a short film coaxed to feature-length, what an incredible way to start a career.