From Cannes: ‘Aftersun’ is a beautiful, albeit oblique, portrait of nostalgia | Arts

Charlotte Wells’ feature debut, ‘Aftersun’, which premiered in the Critics’ Week selection at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival on May 21, begins with the familiar roar of the winding strip – although perhaps more familiar to some generations than to others. Shaky home movies shot on a ’90s camcorder are intercut throughout, adding a sentimental layer to Wells’ family drama.

“Aftersun” forgoes a conventional narrative structure by focusing on the day-to-day experiences of a young Scottish father named Calum (Paul Mescal) and his eleven-year-old daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), while vacationing in Istanbul. The natural performances of the ever-charming but brooding Paul Mescal and precocious newcomer Frankie Corio complement each other to create an authentic on-screen rapport. Although the film ends too obliquely to understand some of its overriding messages, it is still a deeply felt examination of family bonding, with all its joys and complications.

While “Aftersun” focuses on just a few days in Calum and Sopie’s lives, there are subtle hints throughout the film that adult Sophie is reminiscing about their vacation many years later. So intimately observed that the viewer feels like a third member of the family vacationing with the duo, “Aftersun” is a bittersweet, nostalgic time capsule. The simplistic plot doesn’t have a call to action or even a specific issue or emotion to focus on, but Wells’ storyline doesn’t need a typical story arc to make an impression. serious emotional. Viewers are simply guided through the highs and lows of Sophie and Calum’s vacation in Turkey, with the two periodically filming each other with a handheld camera (or, in Sophie’s case, often turning the camera to face each other). Naturally, this gives the film a distinctly artisanal quality. For any 90s or 2000s kid who grew up with their childhood documented on camcorders and played back on VHS tapes, “Aftersun” feels like a reflection of their own experiences.

Mescal shines as 30-year-old Calum – a playful, affectionate and flawed father, whose age often causes people to confuse him with Sophie’s older brother. With his youthful demeanor, he follows the line between friend and father of the curious and independent Sophie. Corio is also fantastic, enlivening his character with his abundance of charm. The couple’s journey is watched with languor: some scenes show them lying by the pool, Calum insisting that he put another layer of sunscreen on Sophie. They eat countless dinners together, talking about everything and nothing. Mescal and Corio are a phenomenal duo, which weighs heavily as the main talent in such a character-driven film. They maintain a wry back and forth and share a mischievous sense of humor as they laugh at jokes only they understand.

While their life outside of the trip remains largely unknown, viewers are slowly gathering information about the couple. It is hinted that Calum is the type of person who jumps into business ventures haphazardly, only to fail or abandon them soon after, come up with a new idea, and repeat the cycle. While Calum is by no means the perfect father — he makes several increasingly questionable parenting decisions that never get unpacked — his openness with his daughter is poignant. He insists she can talk to him about anything, and Mescal makes it easy to trust her sincerity.

“Aftersun” is also visually dynamic, with a bright, sunny color palette evoking the lazy freedom of the hottest days of summer. Wells also makes creative use of reflections — in mirrors, on TVs, on shiny table surfaces — and observing her characters from these unique vantage points draws particular attention to the film’s meditative tone. The director’s incorporation of home videos, which impart a nostalgic aesthetic, allows for moments of time distortion and ambiguity. The clips are used in such a way that viewers don’t know if someone is looking back at the footage from the future or if the recorded events are happening in real time.

As for the retrospective element of “Aftersun,” Wells’ story is frustratingly ambiguous. Strobe-lit club scenes are inserted at irregular intervals throughout Calum and Sophie’s vacation, in which a grown woman and Calum can barely be seen among a crowd of dancers. These fever dream cutaways leave the viewer intrigued, wondering how they will eventually fit into the story. Coupled with increasingly disturbing behavior from Calum, in which he seems to hide deep sadness from his daughter, “Aftersun” feels like it leads to a revelation that will connect his two timelines.

As Sophie is revealed to be watching the old VHS footage several years later – now a mother herself – myriad questions arise: How are Sophie’s memories related to Calum’s strange behavior? How does she feel as an adult thinking back on that trip now that she too has a dependent child? What is his relationship with his father nowadays, if he is still there? Wells leaves all those questions unanswered, briefly discussing the fact that the trip to Istanbul is now a decades-old memory. Ambiguous endings are often the best endings, but “Aftersun” perhaps takes that philosophy too far.

Even with all the lingering questions left for viewers, “Aftersun” is still a beautiful portrayal of Calum and Sophie’s relationship. Their journey takes place just before Sophie begins a new school year, and watching “Aftersun” brings viewers back to the bittersweet feelings of those last days of summer — of wanting them to last forever, but knowing they won’t. can’t.

—Arts Chair Jaden S. Thompson can be reached at [email protected]

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