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Faulty Memory

Aftersun-movie-review-paul-mescal-frankie-corio
A24

MOVIE REVIEW
Aftersun (2022)

First time writer-director Charlotte Wells very nearly did an excellent job with “Aftersun,” but she didn’t trust herself to get her point across, and overdoes it so badly the whole movie spoils. The framing device of adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) obsessively revisiting the camcorder footage of a holiday her 11-year-old self (Frankie Corio) took with her absentee father Calum (Paul Mescal, playing five years older than his real age), is completely unnecessary. Worse, Ms. Wells doesn’t trust the audience to figure out the import of this story, and therefore included several brief scenes about Calum’s state of mind which Sophie is not party to. The scene on the dive boat is an unforgivable cheat; the same point is just as beautifully, and more sadly made, when Sophie asks Calum how he spent his own eleventh birthday. But “Aftersun” is not meant to be an exercise in realism; it’s one of memory, and how wallowing in thin evidence can build its own narrative. That constructed narrative is not necessarily accurate of course, but that’s a problem for another film.

The clue is in the music. The prominently featured songs are “Tender” by Blur, the posh Britpop superstars, and “Road Rage” by Catatonia, the Welsh emo-rockers. This puts the movie in 1999, when an 11-year-old Scottish girl such as Sophie would probably herself have been listening to Steps, the Vengaboys or Robbie Williams. But we are meant to be in the headspace of Calum, who was a teenager when Sophie was born and is mistaken for her brother by some lads around the pool. Their holiday is at a cheap Turkish resort with mainly English guests; most people have gone all-inclusive (meals and drinks pre-paid, confirmed by wristband), except them. For karaoke night Sophie chooses “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. She wants to duet, but Calum refuses, so she gets up and sings it anyway. A cheerful, happy song that adult Sophie still regrets would have been a smarter choice, and justified the framing device, too.

None of this overwrought melodrama would succeed even half as well as it does without Mr. Mescal. Based on very few movies it is clear he is a gargantuan talent, able to express the most complicated emotions with ease, prepared to weaponize his physicality to devastating effect, and already one of the best in cinematic history at just looking at stuff. He gives Calum a backstory and the sense of his relationship with his daughter just in how he puts his hands on his hips. Young Ms. Corio can keep up, but the pathos should have been for the audience to discover and feel for ourselves. It needed more restraint. But one night Calum leaves Sophie to her own devices and without keys to get back into their room. She has to get the hotel reception to let her in, and discovers him passed out, naked. Would a movie about a noncustodial mother who did that receive the same generally glowing critical reception?

As it is, Ms. Wells owes an incredible debt of gratitude to Lynne Ramsay’s vastly superior “Morvern Callar,” another Scottish movie about a young woman, haunted by her memories of an emotionally mysterious man, on an ill-advised cheap beach vacation. Maybe the student will eventually become a master. Based on “Aftersun,” she still has some homework to do.

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