The first thing Charlotte Wells hears in Aftersun, before the first shot, is the electric sound of a video camera operating. Carrier of information, keeper of memories. Question: When you were eleven, what did you think you were going to do today? This question, once uttered, runs throughout the film and is then revisited. Filming it, Sophie asks her father Calum this after getting up, only the question has a different connotation the second time around. She lost her childhood innocence; touches his father’s feelings, which freezes his expression before he angrily takes the recorder from Sophie.
memory and imagination
The relationship between memory and imagination is the central theme of Scottish director Charlotte Wells’ feature debut. To 11-year-old Sophie, played by newcomer Frankie Corio, Calum (“Normal People” actor Paul Mescali) is more of a big brother than an authority figure.
The girl lives with her mother in England, and father and daughter spend a package holiday together in a Turkish resort sometime in the early nineties. A rare moment of connection: the Mediterranean sun, the turquoise blue color of the pool, the gentle enthusiasm of summer create shimmering images against which the dark background is a superficial frivolity that an eleven-year-old child does not yet see.
Wells said at a meeting in Berlin that Aftersun was inspired by a Polaroid photo from a summer vacation when she was a child. At first there was no feeling left, vague memories of her father who was young enough to be an older brother. Kalum also gets mixed up with Sophie’s brother when he’s playing pool with a couple of young men: half proud, half embarrassed, he explains the misunderstanding, she smiles to herself. It’s moments like these without much words that reveal something about the relationship between father and daughter.
memories in memory
And there’s always a video camera that seems to capture what turns out to be fleeting. Years later, Sophie (now played by Celia Rowlson-Hall) is left with only those records from her father. But the image on the memory chip no longer matches the image in her head.
Wells has achieved something very special with his debut: a film that feels like a familiar memory, capturing that vague sense of people and past experiences in images that are both nostalgic and poignant, yet still enigmatic. They are specific, but transcend any terminology. Wells says filmmaking is an intuitive process for her.
“It’s only when you try to shape your memories that the way I work becomes intellectual.” It’s hard to believe, says Wells, that even in the script stage Aftersun looked exactly like the later films. His sensibility seems to follow more of a stream of consciousness: colors, almost physical close-ups, the passage of time, 90s pop.
The chemistry between eleven-year-old Corio and Mescal carries Aftersun. Preparing for the shoot felt like a vacation, Wells says, but the closeness and intimacy between father and daughter was essential to the game. Calum frolics in the fun pool with his daughter; Sophie makes fun of her tai chi exercises.
The film shows some streaky, partially pixelated digital footage captured by Sophie’s MiniDV camcorder during these improvisations. How clairvoyant Corio’s remark was. In the film, Sophie cheekily tells Calum after he takes the device from her that she will continue to shoot with her “head cam”.
Nothing beats a head cam
The metaphor is almost too obvious to describe Wells’ film. But she speaks for the intuition of her young actress, who brings much of Aftersun’s emotional intelligence to her performance. Sophie understands the increasing mood swings…