Writer-director Charlotte Wells makes her feature film debut with the alluring yet frustratingly elusive new drama “Aftersun”. Not far off its highly acclaimed premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Aftersun” comes to us courtesy of A24 and is an unquestionably personal film from Wells. And it’s anchored by two thoughtful and true performances that only highlight her emotional connection to the material.
But while it’s impossible to miss the heartfelt feeling behind “Aftersun”, staying connected to film proves to be a chore especially for anyone looking for character development and anything resembling a plot. To be fair, when it comes to the art of cinema, not every film hinges on those elements. I can list several movies that I dearly love as examples. But Wells omits so much and keeps the details incredibly vague, to the point that I can see many people seeking information from outside the movie just to connect with what’s happening within it.
A woman named Sophie (played in a scattered handful of scenes by Celia Rowlson-Hall) recalls an idyllic summer vacation from her childhood twenty years ago. It’s when she and her father traveled to Turkey and spent a week or so at a seaside resort. Resembling a flashback, the story unfolds as adult Sophie thinks back on that time. Yet as she does, we sense a sadness within her. But we only get a sense of it, and we can only speculate the reason. That’s because adult Sophie gets very little screen time. And much of it is bathed in assaultive strobe-lighting, an odd and not too revealing metaphor for her memory (or maybe something more. It’s hard to tell because everything about her remains so opaque).
The vast majority of our time is spent on vacation with 11-year-old Sophie (an impressively natural Frankie Corio). She and her father Calum (Paul Mescal) spend their days swimming, playing pool, taking mud baths, and laughing at the resort’s other guests doing the Macarena (it’s the 90’s after all). And with that you have the story in a nutshell. Relaxed to a fault, Wells milks her understated approach dry, content with just following Sophie and Calum around on their holiday. Yes it plays like a memory. But another person’s memory (much like watching other people’s home movies) isn’t always interesting. We do get clues that hint at problems yet little in terms of answers. We get small pieces of information but little glue to hold them together.
That said, Corio and Mescal have a strikingly organic chemistry. Corio is a revelation, bringing childlike innocence face-to-face with sudden maturity. She’s one example where Wells’ choice of leaving things unsaid works. Corio conveys volumes through her mannerisms, tone, and sometimes a simple look. Through Mescal, Calum is tough to read. He’s a puzzle box, clearly trying to be a good dad. Yet later there are moments when he appears aloof and disconnected, as if he’s lost in some inner darkness. But this (like so much else in the movie) is mostly guesswork and speculation.
“Aftersun” is sure to please those who aren’t necessarily looking for answers and who enjoy filling in the blanks themselves. Others will be frustrated by its evasive nature and its unwillingness to do more (not all) of the heavy-lifting. Myself, I don’t mind ambiguity, and I enjoy following breadcrumbs and piecing together clues left behind by a filmmaker. These things can be especially potent when a project is so personal to its creator.
But for me, “Aftersun” is too hazy and blurred. Some of its techniques are effective (the grainy camcorder video, the use of 90s music including one specific REM tune in a karaoke scene that’s too good to spoil, etc.). But it’s a movie that hinges on your ability to put a big portion of yourself into it. For me that requires a deeper connection – one that comes from an understanding of the characters that (for one reason or another) I never had. So it ends up being a movie I sincerely admire and desperately wanted to love. But without that internal connection, it feels as if you’re just plugging holes rather than sharing in something meaningful.