By Bradley Lane
What separates our memories from the photos and videos we take? Are these digital artifacts substitutes for our own memories, or is it that these documents shape our view of times past? Writer-director Charlotte Wells wrestles with these ideas throughout her achingly beautiful debut feature film Aftersun. Set through the lens of a woman desperately trying to make sense of very complicated feelings, Sophie explores her memories of a trip with her father through the home videos they took together.
From the very beginning of the film, Wells establishes an uncharacteristically foreboding atmosphere. Sophie and her dad Calum get along like the best of friends. They joke and laugh and share an intimate bond. So why then does a melancholic, almost tense tone pervade their idyllic vacation? Clearly there is something unspoken between them or between their experience and the audience’s understanding of it. They clearly love being around one another. Their relationship is the driver of the otherwise slow, uneventful film. They get to a hotel, swim at the pool, go to dinner, and see embarrassingly lame performances of old Elvis covers and staff lead macarena sessions. Despite this unassuming story, tiny moments paint the audience’s emotional experience. A fleeting facial expression, a shot that lingers just a bit too long, or a composition slightly askew all cue the audience to lean in and question what is being communicated.
This attention to detail of the form combines with utterly transfixing performances by Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio to create something wholly transcendent. Wells pioneers a lyrical style of editing that interrogates the very nature of memory in a uniquely immediate and realistic framework that sneaks up on the viewer. It feels so universal to find oneself rummaging through old photos and home movies to try and make sense of what would come next, applying hindsight where there was once just the moment.
They had such a tough time growing up but they’re so much happier now. I can’t believe it was just a few years ago they left for college and now they’re getting married. I miss them so much; we were just together what felt like days ago.
Wells has a way of juxtaposing the unflinching reality of a moment with the idealized, forever crystallized, recording of moments just after or proceeding them. This technique recalls one of the masters of editing Alain Resnais, specifically his 1959 master work Hiroshima Mon Amour. Both Resnais and Wells highlight the haunting qualities of memories. Ghosts, hiding in the deepest most vulnerable parts of our psyche, less seen than felt in quiet pain. Only appearing when shocked into our system by external stimuli; a smell, an image, or in this case a low-quality camcorder tape.
Wells feels deeply, she has an empathetic soul that is laid bare by the vulnerable contents of her first film. As a fellow intense feeler of feelings, I walked away from Aftersun just incredibly thankful to be able to share in what I can only imagine must have been a difficult story for her to tell. It is rare for a film to so quickly entrench itself within my being. Aftersun creates a world that audiences, like its principle character, will beg to live in for just a moment longer, if only to mourn more completely, to get closure that never comes. Currently only available in theaters, Aftersun is essential viewing, pure cinematic magic. – 5/5 stars