Charlotte Wells's feature debut is a masterpiece of beauty and psychological insight. It’s weighty, authentic, essential viewing.

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Some coincidences you can’t make up. On the day I watched Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, her masterful film on grief and memory, my daughter sent me a video of my now-deceased son Josh. He was laughing as we watched a silly YouTube cartoon on Christmas Eve a few years back.

Oh, the mix of emotions this video elicited! (It’s the only video I possess of my camera-averse child.) I laughed, because I remembered how much he loved that cartoon. I smiled, because I rejoiced in seeing Josh rock from laughter in his unique fashion. But I fought back tears, because I’ll never see him do that again.

In Aftersun, the central character Sophie spends the movie remembering her deceased father through the medium of family movies and the intrusion of memory into her daily life. In its analysis of grief and memory, it rang so true, I’m unsurprised that festival audiences sometimes approached Wells more as therapist than filmmaker.

The film itself

Before getting more personal, let me put on my critic hat and talk about the film itself. It’s my favorite feature of 2022, so please make an effort to see it if you haven’t. (You can purchase it for streaming on all major services in the US.)

For someone so clearly in command of form, image, narrative, and actorly direction, it’s astonishing that Aftersun is the 35-year-old Scottish writer/director’s feature debut. Simply put, her film tells the story in flashback of a meaningful summer vacation taken by 11-year-old Sophie and her dad Calum. Their seaside trip to Turkey is remembered by an adult Sophie some 20 years later.

True to most vacations, their experiences are a mix of the idyllic and the aggravating. They’re given a smaller hotel room than advertised, with construction noises outside the window. Father and daughter are sometimes moody, sometimes get on each other’s nerves. Yet the scenery is lovely, the weather perfect, and both have a chance for heart-to-heart conversations.

The chemistry between the two leads is wondrous. Given two weeks to get to know each other on location before the cameras rolled, Paul Mescal (Calum) and Frankie Corio (young Sophie) feel like father and daughter. Their mutual affection, the easy tender touches as they apply sunscreen or prepare for bedtime, Sophie’s embarrassment when Calum practices tai chi in public: all carry total authenticity.

This is Corio’s first movie role, chosen from 800 auditioning kids, and she is so damn talented, and adorable to boot. I’d only seen Mescal in last year’s The Lost Daughter—another insightful, unconventional story of parents and children—but he is superb in this challenging role. Only 30 years old, Calum no longer lives in Scotland, so he doesn’t see Sophie regularly. Calum conveys his guilt through words and emotion, placing heavy importance on this rare opportunity to spend time with Sophie. As we see more of Mescal onscreen, we recognize Calum is also attempting, and failing, to hide a deeper sadness from Sophie. Mescal expresses this with impressive subtlety.

Some of Aftersun’s scenes were shot home video style, others more traditionally. These alternations signify that Sophie is viewing some memories on her digital camera and some in her mind’s eye. Jumps from past to present effectively build suspense: we know something traumatic will happen, but we can’t discern what exactly, till the end.

The entirety of Aftersun can be read as a meditation on the weight of our final days and moments with those we’ve lost.

Aftersun’s music is ideal accompaniment for what we witness onscreen. The looming, melancholic music from composer/performer Oliver Coates is interspersed with the type of upbeat pop music one hears on a resort vacation. I won’t spoil it here, but the song chosen for the climactic scene is the best needle drop I’ve heard in ages.

And now for the themes (plus a major spoiler alert)

Let’s get the big spoiler out of the way. It’s pretty clear that Calum takes his life not long after his trip with Sophie. Though Wells’ narrative is mildly cryptic on this point, I feel this conclusion is inescapable for a few reasons.

Mescal’s portrayal of Calum carries profound melancholy. We observe this not only in the scene where he weeps painfully but in multiple others as well. When fellow tourists sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for his birthday, his facial expression screams out Impostor Syndrome. Where it matters at his core, he doesn’t believe he’s jolly good. As he speaks to Sophie of not belonging in Edinburgh, his voice comes close to breaking. He perceives alienation everywhere.

There’s also evidence of quasi-suicidal behavior before Aftersun fades to black. Calum perilously stands on his balcony railing. On a night he and Sophie spend apart, he walks into a darkened sea, and we don’t see him emerge. A postcard left for Sophie reads like a suicide note.

Like most who choose suicide, Calum simultaneously carries a death wish and a will to life in his body. As he and Sophie loiter on a dock, he voices the hope that his daughter will always feel safe discussing anything with him. I don’t think he was misleading Sophie. A part of him wanted to stay present for her.

The entirety of Aftersun can be read as a meditation on the weight of our final days and moments with the deceased, especially those treasured one-on-one times with them. Its second-to-last scene shows an adult Sophie playing the video of their parting at trip’s end. (Lucky her, their final words are “I love you” and “Goodbye.”) Sophie freezes the video on her younger self, smiling and raising her hand in sweet farewell.

Occasionally, the film jumps to the present day. Most commonly in these scenes, Sophie is dancing at a rave. Like her, I find it’s periods of time that don’t demand my full concentration—listening to a concert, going on a walk—where painful memories of my son most likely intrude.

Once we see adult Sophie waking from a nightmare involving her dad. A slow camera tilt, from her feet to her upper body, reveals her seated on the edge of her bed. Significantly, her feet were resting on the Turkish rug her dad purchased on their trip.

Outside of my movie reviews, I’ve written about the totemic significance of our deceased one’s possessions. Yesterday, I wore a pair of my son’s socks, and I commonly wear one of his sweatshirts. Like the Turkish rug, these items help us stay connected to those we’ve lost and still cherish.

(It’s worth mentioning that Wells has vaguely described her film as autobiographical. I absolutely respect her right to privacy, but I’ll just say her film radiates the authenticity of someone who’s survived suicide loss.)

Perhaps I’m projecting on this next point, but I can’t help but believe adult Sophie is expressing guilt in her choice of memories. The increasing preponderance of “Calum is sad” moments as the film hurtles towards its conclusion. The way so many scenes end with her father melancholic and troubled. I suspect the grownup child is wishing an omniscience on her younger self that none of us possess.

‘Aftersun’ perfectly captures the grief-memory connection | Calum and Sophie during their last dance

I’m saving the best (and heaviest) for last, the best scene from the best film of the year. It’s so affecting and well-crafted that searching “aftersun ending” on Twitter brings up a boatload of tweets. My favorite director Akira Kurosawa famously said that sound and image should have a multiplying emotional impact. Wells achieves this here in a way that would’ve made the sensei proud.

At their vacation’s last supper, David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” starts playing overhead. Calum gets up from their table to dance. This initially mortifies Sophie, but she then responds to her father’s beckoning and joins him.

The director then alternates present-day imagery with these vacation memories. In the rave’s strobe lights, a fantasy unspools as adult Sophie rages wordlessly at her dancing father. As young Sophie clings to her father in Turkey, adult Sophie desperately embraces her dad before letting go.

Wells’ choice of music is nothing less than perfect. Despite hearing “Under Pressure” countless times, I’d never paid attention to the lyrics, but they fully mesh with the tone of the entire film and this scene. “Pressure…that splits a family in two.” “Watchin’ some good friends screamin,’ ‘Let me out.’” “Turned away from it all like a blind man.” “Why can’t we give love one more chance?” The music and lyrics begin as background noise, building to dominate the scene on “this is the last dance.”

This sequence resonates with my own internal cacophony since my son suicided. We rage over their choice. We entertain rescue fantasies. We lovingly release them. And then we repeat the cycle.

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