A film review by Craig J. Koban January 31, 2023


2022, R, 101 mins.

Paul Mescal as Calum  /  Francesca Corio as Sophie  /  Celia Rowlson-Hall as Adult Sophie  /  Sally Messham as Melinda  /  Brooklyn Toulson as Michael  /  Spike Fearn as Olly

Written and directed by Charlotte Wells



I've read that writer/director Charlotte Wells based AFTERSUN (her feature film debut) on a personal moment when she was casually looking at a family photo album and noticed a particular picture of her dad that struck her for how young he looked in it.  

I know precisely how she felt.  

I was recently flipping through photos from my own high school graduation and was kind of blown away by the thought that my own father - posing right next to me during that time - was actually the same age that I am right now.  When I met my father a few hours after seeing said photo it really dawned on me:  Wow, he's so much older now.  And then I realized that nearly thirty years has gone by since my high school graduation.  A parent aging through the decades is not something that one immediately ponders on a daily basis, but when reminders start to turn up about just how much time has passed it becomes a real emotional eye opener. 

Described by Wells as "emotionally autobiographical," AFTERSUN explores a relationship at a specific time in the past between a young girl and her young father.  The Scottish-born, New York-based filmmaker is obviously coming from a very personal place with her rookie effort, even if the key characters in question are fictional.  One of the cornerstone themes at play here is the notion of an adult looking back (which is also a literal storytelling device here, more on that in a bit) at her past ties with her father, and in doing so comes to the conclusion that, yes, this man may indeed have loved and nurtured her back then, but he nevertheless remained a cipher...someone that she may not have fully known or understood very well.  There's a definitive universality to this story that will no doubt strike an easy chord with most viewers, and one of the finer things that AFTERSUN elicits is the haziness of memories and how we can oftentimes form incomplete pictures of the most vitally important figures in our lives.  I think that AFTERSUN is a bit too leisurely and slow moving in its build up to massive dramatic crescendos, but when it does it emeges an undeniably powerful and sensitively rendered coming of age drama.   

The whole setup here is incredibly modest.  Set during the 90s, we meet 11-year-old Sophie (played so naturally by Frankie Corio) who's about to spend a summer vacation with her 30-year-old Scottish father in Calum (a quietly mesmerizing Paul Mescal) in a very touristy location in Turkey.  If one does the easy math, then it's clear that Calum became a dad at the relatively young age of 20, which leads to many that the pair come in contact with accidentally and falsely thinking that they're brother and sister.  Both don't take it too much to heart, though, and instead try to embrace the time that they have together moving forward.  Although both are relatively close, there still seems to be an unspoken wedge that exists between them.  Sophie is a bright minded and inquisitive girl on the verge of maturity, whereas Calum seems a bit too nonchalant in his parental duties and responsibilities.  Something just seems off about his general detachment from things.  This most likely has much to do with his recent separation from his wife and his struggles with funding gainful employment and saving up a nest egg for himself to move forward. 



We learn more details as father and daughter spend more time together, like, for instance, that Sophie lives and spends most of her time with her mother.  We also learn that Calum and his wife split on good terms, but the ending of their relationship has had a much more damaging effect on him.  Calum rarely shows his emotions to Sophie and instead would rather internalize and bottle them up as opposed to speaking plainly and meaningfully about them with her.  Sophie isn't blind to the realization that not all is perfectly well and balanced with her dad, but she soldiers on during their vacation in an effort to get closer to him and allow him to come out of his own shell.  He has brought along books on meditation and Tai Chi, which suggest that he's trying to stave off adult stresses and anxieties, but he frequently seems to emotionally crash - albeit well away from his daughter - and gets enslaved by his feelings of low self-worth.  Despite all of his adrift behavior (that Sophie is perceptive enough to notice, but not fully comprehend), Calum wants his vacation time with her to be productive and memorable, but deep down this is a man that maybe got married too early, had a kid too early, and simply was not up to the challenge of either. 

AFTERSUN is, as alluded to, not a complex film, per se, but it ultimately has so much to say about the complex fragility of family ties and how our memories of growing up with parents and the perceptions that we develop about them at a young age can fundamentally change when we become adults ourselves.  This is not an endlessly sad melodrama, to be sure, and as we watch - like silent eyewitnesses - Sophie and Calum's shared time on vacation it does appear that they're having a decent time in Turkey.  However, as the film begins to unravel - with frequent time jumps and perspective shifts - a whole different layer of intrigue washes over everything, and one that's tainted with depressing regret.  The 35-year-old Wells utilizes some bold, experimental choices with chronicling the differing points of view contained within her story.  As AFTERSUN starts it initially seems abundantly clear that this is a tale from the young Sophie's eyes, but then we learn that we get a second prerogative of this vacation from an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) looking back, which is compelling because she's now married and has a child herself in the present.  She remembers these times in Turkey, but now is forced to seriously think about what her father was really going through at the time.  Aging and maturing has provided a unique form of hindsight for her now.  We get scenes of the vacation in the past interspersed with a dreamlike and surreal vision of a rave that involves adult Sophie on a dance floor catching glimpses here and there of her aloof and in-the-distance father.  She wants to meet and talk with him, but can't.  He seems hopelessly out of reach.  As the film evolves it's apparent that Calum may not be a presence in Sophie's adult life because he never made it and is gone forever.   

AFTERSUN intuitively relays how memories and consciousness (through time) works with people.  Sometimes, a clear picture can never materialize when we reflect on time passed, no matter how much we force ourselves to make sense of it all.  Many scenes between young Sophie and her dad are shot via period specific camcorders, so adult Sophie is then forced to reconcile her actual memories with the recorded ones she still possesses of the summer in question.  I appreciated how AFTERSUN speaks towards the elusiveness of personal recollections and how bloody hard it is to find new clues decades later to form a larger and fuller portrait of our parents in our adult mind's eye.  What Sophie grows to learn is that, yes, her father loved and was devoted to her, but he faced his own struggles that got the better of him, which could never be thoroughly appreciated or comprehended by an 11-year-old.  The casting and performances are the film's standout accomplishments, and Corio is such an incredible find for the way she brings such an authentic and fully lived-in rhythm to her scenes with Mescal.  Their endlessly unforced chemistry works small wonders for the film.  Mescal has the trickier performance dynamic here, having to play a father that feels that he has to present a false facade of composure and confidence to his daughter, but deep down is harboring paralyzing insecurities about himself, where he is in life, and where he's heading.  Calum looks boyishly young, but you can sense in his eyes that he's hopelessly broken down by his brief time as an adult and is incapable of seeing good times ahead.  Very few performances from 2022 have the devastating sense of immediacy and honesty as what Mescal brings to the table here. 

AFTERSUN is not always an easy ride for viewers.  I found myself feeling that Wells takes perhaps too much time getting to what her film is trying to say about these people.  The early stages are extremely nonchalant and fluid, and maybe Wells is trying to evoke what an actual vacation for a father and daughter is like (this seems like the right approach, but it doesn't necessarily translate to good drama).  When Wells does achieve a slow-burn high with this material it becomes both heart-rending and devastating in equal measure.  Having said that, I think that I admired where the film brings audiences to more so than the actual trip it takes us on, and it's easy to see how some of Wells' more stylistically ethereal choices here may throw many for a puzzled loop (that, and there's also more than a bit of obviousness with those aforementioned rave dream sequences in the way they hammer home key messages at play here).  Still, as a portrait of family love, loss, and reflection, AFTERSUN is made with considerably more understanding and empathy than oh-so-many other coming-of-age dramas, and it easily pivots Wells as a shrewdly perceptive new cinematic voice that utilizes a singular and fresh lens to look at what could have been conventional genre material.  She's definitely one to be on the lookout for moving forward.  

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