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Aftersun ★★★

Availability: showing in theaters in limited release; available streaming on Apple TV, Google, Redbox, and many other sites; see JustWatch here.


What Calum and Sophie Did on Their Summer Vacation


Calum, about to turn 31 and separated from (and maybe never married to) his former partner, takes their 11-year-old daughter Sophie on a two-week vacation to a middle-class Turkish seaside resort. They play in the surf, sit and talk on a raft, rub mud on each other at a nearby spa, shop for a carpet, go scuba diving, watch fleets of paragliders overhead, and lie in the sun (the title refers to a brand of sunscreen). There’s entertainment: staff in matching t-shirts do the Macarena (the film is set in the 1990s), an aging lounge singer in silver lamé croons “Unchained Melody,” and the guests try Karaoke (Sophie sings—rather badly—R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion”). The standard vacation combo of modest fun and a touch of boredom.


Above, Frankie Corio as 11-year-old Sophie

and Paul Mescal as Calum, her 31 year-old father,

spending that vacation time that's a combination of

modest fun and a touch of boredom.


 

Where’s the plot?

 

Where’s the plot? A line from a pop song comes to mind: “The movie wasn’t so hot/It didn’t have much of a plot.” We didn’t fall asleep (the next line in the 1950s tune), but halfway through we were wondering when the setup would end and the “action” (motivated by a problem, a choice, a change, a critical event) would begin. The film as a whole can seem to be all setup. Waiting for something to happen.

 

He walks into the sea in the dead of night, intimations of Virginia Woolf. Will he die?

 

The script offers some plot possibilities. Calum (the intense Irish actor Paul Mescal) seems pleased to spend this limited time with his daughter, whom he sees rarely because they live in different cities or even countries. She’s a “tomboyish” (the casting call adjective) Frankie Corio, 12 years-old, in her first acting role. The two have a sweet relationship, but Calum is contemplative, adrift, even depressed, a bit of a risk-taker or simply a guy who thinks about taking risks. He goes diving without a license. Will he drown? He appears to imagine trying paragliding. Will he do it and fall? He walks into the sea in the dead of night, intimations of Virginia Woolf. Will he die? No, no, and no. Sophie’s 11, thoroughly innocent but on the cusp of pubescence (in one evening scene she wears her “bikini”—just a 2-piece suit—under her dress), and there are boys and girls older than she at the club. Will she slip into adolescence, succumb to temptation? All the hands on bodies—the mud, the “Aftersun”—and the one bed that greets them on their arrival amount to an unwelcome hint of another possibility, diminishing an otherwise praiseworthy effort to construct an unusually inventive film.



The poster for "Aftersun," right,

which has earned 14 awards

and 29 other nominations to date.




These questions, and the anxieties that underlie them, do not constitute a plot; indeed, it can be argued that they are mere distractions, false fears. But they point the way to constructing a plot, and it’s that “construction,” the reading of a plot into the film by the viewer, that is the pleasure—and the salvation—of “Aftersun.” It has little plot other than the one viewers give it, and to do that requires parsing the film’s implications, suggestions, and hints.


“Aftersun” is a mystery, one triggered by Sophie’s insistent question to her father: “What did you think you would become when you were 11?” He resists the question, recalling that his parents forgot his 11th birthday. “You can’t go home again,” he tells Sophie, emphasizing that even his 11-year-old self never felt like he “belonged.” What has he become? We don’t know what he does now (though he seems to have a limited bank account), nor what he has done or was trained to do. More revealing than any answer to his daughter’s question may be Calum’s frequent, black-and-white memories of a discotheque, with the suggestion they convey that something happened one night that set the course of his life. The plot begins to take shape. Young folks think Sophie is Calum’s sister; he corrects them. There’s a brief, revealing discussion with the scuba boat captain, who is contemplating having a child before the age of 40. “I can’t imagine 40,” Calum—who had a child at 20—replies. A late, dream-like scene, of Calum walking down an antiseptic corridor, then opening a door to darkness beyond, appears to assemble some of the elements of a plot that pre-dates the film’s story, but it does so fleetingly, obscurely, and unreliably.

 

Calum’s protectiveness isn’t about Sophie. It’s about something that happened to Calum.

 

Like any father of a daughter Sophie’s age, Calum is protective of her in a variety of ways: instructions in self-defense, water polo to develop her aggressiveness, his assumption that Sophie’s first kiss (with an equally innocent 11-year-old boy) was nothing more than a “peck on the cheek.” But in some sense—with the focus on the search for the “plot”—Calum’s protectiveness isn’t about Sophie. It’s about something that happened to Calum, something related to that night at the disco, years ago. He knows how the innocence she embodies can be easily shattered, and a life changed, even in one evening.


If the plot involves the past, it also encompasses the future. Calum and Sophie relentlessly videotape each other during the vacation. In the film’s final scene, a mature, adult Sophie, a lesbian with partner and child, scrolls through the videos, trying to understand both her mysterious father and her own start to adulthood.

 

With its visual excesses, a few viewers will want their anti-vertigo meds.

 

Perhaps to keep viewers entertained as they grapple with the absence of plot or, more charitably, to lend the production the feel of cinema verité, Scottish director Charlotte Wells draws on a variety of filmic techniques reminiscent of the visual manipulations of Wim Wenders: long takes, including 40 seconds of a shot of bedclothes and another of Calum and Sophie in a mirror; scenes filmed as reflections, one of them with Calum upside down, another with Calum and Sophie reflected in a TV/video monitor; early scenes, on a bus, in which movement is represented by streaks of light; and, of course, the hand-held camera. Wells’ first feature won Best Editing and Best Cinematography at the British Independent Film Awards, but with its visual excesses, a few viewers will want their anti-vertigo meds. Some will be entranced by the illusive character Mescal portrays; others will be disappointed the Brando-like young actor (he’ll play Stanley Kowalski on the London stage this winter), now recognized internationally after his electric performance in the 2020 TV mini-series “Normal People,” is so understated through most of the film.


More unfortunate, many film-goers will emerge from the theater mystified at the absence of a plot, muttering “it seemed like nothing happened,” to quote the title of a book on the 1970s. Something did happen, and there is a plot. It just takes some effort to find it.

 

Date: 2022

Director: Charlotte Wells

Starring: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio

Other Awards: 36 wins and 75 other nominations to date

Countries: United Kingdom, United States

Language: English

Runtime: 102 minutes

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