November 25, 2022

Another poetic masterpiece from A24

The word “nostalgia” was coined by Johannes Hofer, a 17th-century Swiss medical student, by combining the Greek words for “back to basics” (nostos) and ‘pain’ (algorithms). As such, it’s an ambivalent state of mind, a sad warmth that envelops us in joy for something we once experienced and will never return. Popular culture is in a nostalgic boom right now, using sentiment as a marketing ploy to manipulate audiences; all reboots and remakes appeal to us because they trigger our younger memories and associations.

After Sun, Charlotte Wells’ poignant debut, explores rather than exploits this emotion. Picked up by A24 (which is fast becoming the best in the business) and the excellent Mubi streaming service, After Sun is about a father and his daughter on vacation. Calum is a young dad and Sophie is his 11-year-old daughter who is mistaken for her sister. While vacationing in Turkey, the two spend a week together in the 1990s at a resort that caters to British tourists, where they just hang out. It’s a deceptively simple film, but like nostalgia itself, After Sun is capable of triggering deep emotions in viewers. After winning the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film screened at the New York Film Festival ahead of its wider October 21 release.


Memories of a Father and Daughter in Aftersun

The film is essentially a long flashback to the 90s, told from the perspective of an older Sophie, but the “present moment” in which Sophie is her father’s age on vacation is not developed. Sophie is in a relationship and may be living in Turkey now, with her own newborn child. She doesn’t provide any sentimental voice-over narration (thank goodness), and After Sun not interested in filling in all the details. Instead, Wells invites the viewer to pour their own narrative cement into the cracks of his film. It doesn’t always work in the movies, but it’s a wise choice here.

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Sophie and Calum bring a camcorder with them on their summer vacation, and snippets of the film have that home movie look, complete with amateur zooms and analog grain. Sometimes we see the dark reflection of an older Sophie, as if watching this footage on a TV screen, but most After Sun features wonderful cinematography by Gregory Oke. Oke likes to linger, his camera moving at an icy pace as the focus shifts with subtle precision, creating a mesmerizing effect. Yes, it’s slow, but time isn’t even an appropriate measure for this film; After Sun is lost in memory, existing in this timeless space that is somehow eternal but also gone.

Paul Mescal perfects Aftersun’s portrayal of fatherhood

The result is a sort of symphonic poem, but a film that’s not nearly as pretentious as it sounds. It’s a nice meditation on fathers and daughters, memory and loss, and of course nostalgia itself, but it’s not didactic on all of that. After Sun simply follows Calum and Sophie as they adhere to the typical vacation routine – sunbathing, karaoke, sleeping in, meeting new people at the resort. Through this simple, character-centric approach, we learn more and more about Calum, a fascinating character played to perfection by Paul Mescal.

Calum could be a great dad; he’s definitely an interesting person. He is estranged from Sophie’s mother, but he still says “I love you” when he hangs up the phone. He dances in a silly way, but is aware of it. He practices tai chi with slow, graceful movements of his limbs and torso that mirror the camera work in After Sun. He brings his books on meditation and self-help with him on the trip, and not much else. A sad beauty slowly emerges from this character, who buys things he can’t afford for Sophie, and knows that Sophie knows he’s broke. He cries alone in his room in the absence of Sophie.

Mescal, so amazing in The lost girl and normal people, here is unforgettable, taking these little sketches of a character and bringing them to life in a truly multifaceted way. Calum may be a goofball, but he’s so obviously a tortured soul, and Mescal plays him in a way that’s “sad enough to make you laugh and funny enough to make you cry”, to quote Jim Jarmusch’s analysis of a film by Aki Kaurismaki. There’s a feeling that Calum doesn’t have much longer in this world. Like many other things, After Sun isn’t definitive on this, but it looks like Calum is definitely gone from older Sophie’s life to the present. He may have a mental illness or have committed suicide, which is suggested by his crying, eerie dancing, suicidal impulses, and one of the film’s weirdest tools – a surreal dance floor lit by strobe lights.

Aftersun is open to interpretation

Modified in After Sun is a dark void. Flashes of light flicker on and off in this caliginous void, where people are dancing, and eldest Sophie looks lost and upset. The film cuts to this on occasion, creating a tense sense of unease. It seems to be the dance hall of memory, where Sophie wanders in search of her father. It’s an odd choice in the film, but on top of creating a neat editing structure for After Sunit also paves the way for further interpretation.

Depending on how a viewer fills in the blanks Wells provides with the film, After Sun can be a very different thing for different people. For some, it will be a sweet tale of a daughter remembering her father, but the strobe-lit nightmarish dance suggests a kind of anger and confusion. It might be a more cynical approach, but there’s definitely a way to see this movie through a much darker lens. You could say that when Sophie remembers her father, she actually remembers her abuser.

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The eldest Sophie doesn’t look at this with emotion, and as pessimistic as it sounds, there could be evidence that Calum is a pedophile. Between the black void, the lingering shots of father and daughter wiping their faces or slathering on sunscreen, the sex suggestions, the feeling of great guilt that consumes Calum and the disturbing music, one could certainly see After Sun like a much sadder movie. The ambiguous open ending, with a haunting deconstruction of the classic song Under pressureseems to suggest great suffering, if not something sinister.

The big movie A24 and Mubi hits theaters on October 21

Regardless of the interpretation, there is melancholy at the base of After Sun, just as the word ‘pain’ is part of nostalgia. Wells accomplishes this in mysterious and subtle ways, even filming beaches, mountains, and sun-drenched bodies. She perfectly captures the feeling of nostalgia, the lack of a memory and the sadness that accompanies it, no matter how you view the film. After Sun recalls a line from Samwise in The Lord of the Rings“I don’t know why, but it makes me sad.” There is immense beauty in this sadness, however, and like an ambiguous memory, After Sun will stay with viewers long after his passing.

A production of BBC Film, BFI, Screen Scotland, Pastel Productions, Unified Theory and Tango Entertainment, After Sun will be in theaters on October 21 thanks to A24 in Canada and the United States, and by Mubi everywhere else.