Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
One of the mysteries of film is the way a movie can be utterly and completely about something without being about that thing. I don’t mean “hidden meanings” crap or anything like that. I mean something like the way Melancholia is ostensibly about a planet colliding with Earth, but is really about depression (the title gives the game away in that case, I guess).
Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun is like that. Instead of a planet crashing into Earth, we have a summer holiday. The setting is Turkey, where divorced dad Calum (Paul Mescal), still a young man, is taking a summer break with his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). It is part of the film’s tilt toward summer daydream that we are never sure how long this holiday lasts; it appears to be an elastic cycle of days and nights at a featureless seaside resort. We’re on childhood time, and the clock ticks according to Sophie’s biorhythms, somehow slowed down by unspoken worry about her dad. The movie includes the adult Sophie, so it is explicitly a memory film, her fragmented version of the trip.
If Aftersun is a coming-of-age story, it is also about the unaddressed issue, which is that Calum appears to be significantly depressed. We must infer most of this, from his dogged devotion to Tai Chi and meditation to his helpless pull toward the sea one night, a sequence in which, because of the little things Wells and Mescal have implied about Calum, the dread is practically palpable even though no melodrama has overtly told us that this might be the night he can’t take it anymore.
Most of the time, Wells concentrates on the stuff of adolescence—the video games, the flirtations, the poolside boredom—some of which is specific and pointed, some of which is generic. In Frankie Corio’s alert presence, we have yet another brilliant child performance, so unvarnished and authentic that you can’t help but root for Sophie every step, to the point where you may find yourself feeling unusually protective of this kid. Corio is matched by Mescal, who is so quiet in his method that he practically slips out of sight while he’s still onscreen. (Wells frequently has him visually separated from Sophie, which adds to his fading-away affect.) When Sophie tells him about her feelings of free-floating gloom, hinting at her own tendency toward melancholia, his reaction is a heartbreakingly delicate depiction of parental terror.
In short, a lovely film, deserving of its festival accolades. I don’t mean to take anything away from that by noting that it feels like the consummation of an independent-film house style circa 2022, rather familiar in its drowsy, elliptical mode and of course punctuated by exquisitely chosen songs. (It could be a cousin to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, in which Mescal also appears, to say nothing of some tactile similarities with Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s Murina.) But that’s mostly an observation about the way indies seem to gravitate toward a familiar mode every few years—a natural occurrence—and not a knock against the sad power of this one.
This movie opens locally at the Seattle 10 and Meridian theaters.
November 4, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.