There are few places more appropriate to explore the concept of memory than in cinema. Even though a film is a permanent object, a combination of images and sound decided upon as definitive by a team of creative voices, it still has a fleeting delicacy to it. The manner in which we receive it, when seen in a cinema, is a play of colour and light, two forces that have an ephemeral quality to them, impossible to catch before they disappear - just like memory. As time goes on, film in its original negative form fades and breaks down, just as our hold on our memories does. They fracture, split, crumble, morph. We may have moved into a digital format now, where the preservation of a film is maintained, but that delicate quality of film is still in our bodies, and so it still serves as a potent form with which to explore our relationship with memory.
We've seen a number of films in recent years grapple with this relationship. 'Call Me By Your Name' subtly plays with the fracturing of memory, the way it echoes across time like a ghost. More directly, Joanna Hogg grappled with the relationship between memory and cinema with her remarkable two-part magnum opus 'The Souvenir', where cinema initially becomes a means with which to recreate and recapture memory before proving to be an inadequate copy. Many of these qualities are also present within 'Aftersun', the debut feature from writer and director Charlotte Wells, but where those films were able to maintain observational distance, a dissection of sorts, 'Aftersun' exists within the immediacy of memory, an active wrestling with making sense of something fleeting and delicate before it disappears forever, leaving its mysteries unanswered.
Teenager Sophie (Frankie Corio) is on a holiday with her father Calum (Paul Mescal, 'Normal People', 'The Lost Daughter'). Sophie's parents are no longer together, so these visits with her father are charged with a need to make the most of them, including capturing even the most mundane moments on a camcorder. It becomes clear though that what we are seeing is a memory, with flashes of Sophie as an adult (Celia Rowlson-Hall, 'Vox Lux'). We are revisiting this holiday, 20 years later, through the footage shot on the camcorder and from what she can remember, the pieces coming together to try and create a portrait of who she was and who her father was, and to make sense of what was to come.
It would be easy to wax lyrical about the many technical accomplishments of this film - Charlotte Wells delivering an astonishingly assured, accomplished and compassionate debut akin to Francis Lee's 'God's Own Country' - but that would do the film a disservice. 'Aftersun' is the perfect example of a film you don't so much watch as feel. What is most remarkable about it is the way it captures some of the most indescribable aspects of our relationship with our memories. There are no dramatic set pieces in the film; Wells isn't interested in any kind of high drama. What we see are disparate moments of normalcy, even banality - lying by the pool, applying sunscreen, playing pool, going for hikes. On their own, these moments seem inconsequential to an observer, but the miracle of 'Aftersun' is the way in which it allows us to see through Sophie's eyes - for the person to whom these memories belong, nothing about these moments are inconsequential. When we think of those perfect memories of someone we deeply care about, it's not the dramatic ones that make our heart skip a beat, but those small perfect moments of life being lived, private exchanges only we notice. These moments seem all the more magical when they come from childhood, especially as age causes them to refract and shift, but also all the more precious when the person you shared them with isn't there anymore.
Under the surface of 'Aftersun' is a sense that something isn't right. We're never explicitly told this, but there is an unsettled quality to Calum, and the flashes we see of Sophie as an adult suggest that the closeness we see in these memories is no longer there. Without realising, without a moment of revelation that makes this crystal clear to us, we slowly come to an understanding that this isn't just a reminiscence but at attempt to capture, protect and preserve in order to make sense. It's as if we are rifling through a box of faded Polaroids, looking for something we desperately hope is there, something to make it all make sense. The choice to fill the film with blurred camcorder footage only adds to this - in an age of high definition, these clips feel all the more delicate; an obsolete format left behind through technological advancement, but holding these deeply precious things we cannot bear to lose. As technology leaves the format fully behind, these precious things become locked away, inaccessible. And as we move through these memories, we start to understand the desperate need to find that piece that makes sense of it all, that she may have missed at the time, the one she should have noticed to do... something, anything. The calm of the opening acts builds to a storm of frustration and pain as it all begins to blow away, the distance between the past and the now growing wider. Sophie is searching for something, for someone, trying to bring them back, trying to pull them back, trying to hold on before they disappear.
The true power of 'Aftersun' doesn't hit you straight away. At first, you find yourself intrigued by its fractured structure, the peculiar way that cinematographer Gregory Oke frames each shot. Very quickly, we fall in love with the relationship between Sophie and Calum, the easy and playful chemistry between Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal. This is a father and daughter with deep love for one another, a willingness to listen and to connect. Even though Calum feels unsettled, his love for his daughter is never in question, and as such Sophie moves through the world confident that he will be there to catch her. There's so much care taken with both Wells' screenplay and her direction, a knowingness of how best to tell her story and reveal the inner life of her characters that demonstrates her incredible command as a filmmaker. A lesser artist would want to rush ahead, reveal their hand in one go, aim for the big emotional moment where all is made clear in an easy dramatic climax. At no point though does she release her grip, does her hand shake, does she lose her nerve. As a result, as we begin to understand why this holiday sticks in Sophie's memory, and as the film moves into its final moments, it crashes over us like a sudden wave, leaving you gasping for air.
'Aftersun' is like an earthquake to the heart. You don't realise the ground is shaking beneath your feet until everything starts crashing down around you.
'Aftersun' left me in a state of emotional shock. In the final five minutes, I could feel the power of it rushing towards me, inevitable and devastating. As the credits rolled, I went to leave but found myself needing to stand at the back of the cinema for a moment. As I walked through the foyer, I suddenly felt a snap about to occur, and moments later was sitting in a toilet stall, sobbing. It took me hours to even be able to talk about it. Some of that reaction is very personal - the circumstances that reveal themselves in the film hit very close to home, reminding me of just such a relationship where the smallest memories feel like precious tiny gems. The final minutes of this film are truly overwhelming, articulating something very few films I've seen on this subject matter have been able to, manifesting a struggle and a circumstance I've thought about almost every day since that relationship came to an end. But this is the real genius of 'Aftersun' - that the specificity with which Wells constructs Sophie's memories and those she chooses to share allow us to find the equivalent in our own. They aren't vague or obvious, but minute and precise. It takes a filmmaker of great emotional intelligence to understand that this method of construction is the most direct way for an audience to find themselves within the emotional landscape of a film, and the power with which Wells wields this knowledge is astonishing. I had a very personal experience with this film, but I am entirely confident that anyone who connects with it would have the same reaction, seeing something of themselves and their own relationship with memory and loss reflected back at them.
Frankie Corio is a remarkable find, entirely at ease in front of the camera and able to communicate so much through so little. Her youthful energy is insatiable and infectious, and the film gives her so much space to play. This is the best kind of child performance, one that doesn't ask the actor to perform but to be, aided by a team able to support that performance. The same support is given to Paul Mescal, allowing him to deliver a performance of astonishing power. Calum is a man held together by sheer will as he feels the universe trying to tear him limb from limb, and it is truly breathtaking the way that Mescal is able to balance Calum's need to hide this from Sophie while allowing us to see under the armour. His performance here is a turning point for an actor we've known for a few years is something special, and it's the kind that gives you goosebumps just thinking about it. This is one of the best performances of the year, and the fact that it is likely too quiet to garner the awards attention it deserves just emphases what a remarkable achievement it is for Mescal and what a truly remarkable actor he is.
'Aftersun' is like an earthquake to the heart. You don't realise the ground is shaking beneath your feet until everything starts crashing down around you. Roger Ebert famously referred to cinema as being "like a machine that generates empathy", and Charlotte Wells' astounding debut is one of the most powerful examples of this we've seen in years. This film is sheer empathy, for its characters and its audience, but empathy doesn't mean being delicate. Empathy is about honesty and connection, about listening and being heard. A work built on empathy is an attempt to communicate who we are, why we are here, how we make sense of the mess of living. Like the most potent of memories, 'Aftersun' stays with you long after it's over, delicate flashes of life captured in the ephemera of colour and light. It feels shockingly personal and deeply generous all at once, unspeakably devastating and unspeakably beautiful. It's a memory we observe and a memory that belongs to us all at once - and, just like Sophie, we reach desperately to grasp it before it fades away forever, before the person within it fades away forever, leaving us with nothing but the sense of what was there, in the emptiness they leave behind. 'Aftersun' is an enormous, overwhelming experience and one of the best films of the year.