Arguably the most celebrated British feature of 2022, Aftersun is now streaming on MUBI in the UK – it was a MUBI cinema release in the UK. The film is a directorial feature debut for the Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells after three shorts and a joint Masters degree in film and business in New York. The film was produced through three independent production companies and public funding via Screen Scotland, BFI and BBC Films. I was keen to see the film but also apprehensive. I always approach films which have received what seem like extravagant and gushing reviews with care. Added to that it is film featuring the relationship between a divorced young man and his 11 year-old daughter and, as a much older man without children, I did wonder what I would make of the couple.
What I discovered was a film with a singular performance by Frankie Corio, a very good one by Paul Mescal and a well-written representation of holiday experiences in a Turkish resort. I wasn’t ‘blown away’ or ’emotionally overwhelmed’ as many reviewers seem to have been. But I was intrigued and I re-ran several scenes to check aspects of the narrative. In the end, I decided that it is a good film, but also probably most appreciated by audiences younger than me.
This is a film with very little conventional ‘plot’. The writer-director has said that the film is not autobiographical but that she has drawn on her own childhood experience of being on holiday with her father. There is a written interview on MUBI and a podcast on the same website. The ‘story’ of the film is actually spread over 20 years or more but the ‘film narrative’ is primarily a few days at a Turkish holiday resort in the late 1990s. Sophie (Frankie Corio) is the 11 year-old and Callum (Paul Mescal) is her father who turns 31 a few days into the holiday. Sophie lives with her mother so this is an intimate narrative in which she and her father try to connect more closely and to learn about each other. However, this is a film about memory so it includes moments of Sophie as she is twenty years later. I don’t want to explain how these moments occur because the film is designed so that audiences will work out for themselves what is happening and what sense they make of it.
There are no particularly dramatic incidents in the narrative. It opens after the title credits sequence with the ride on the coach from the airport to the package hotel and ends when they arrive back at their UK airport. In between, father and daughter lounge around the hotel swimming pool, enjoy the facilities and entertainment, go out on trips and generally do what most families do on holiday. In the podcast, the MUBI interviewer gets Wells to explain the package holiday since Americans are not familiar with it. Really? Perhaps I should explain that such holidays really took off in the UK and across Northern Europe in the early 1970s and eventually allowed most of the population to experience a week of sunshine, initially in Spain, Portugal, Greece and later in Turkey and Tunisia etc. Holidays like these are often much cheaper than travelling within the UK.
Charlotte Wells has also been asked about the specific details of the holiday hotel and whether they have meaning? She argues not, that they are just details that confirm when and where the narrative is set. I confess I didn’t really notice it was the late 1990s. I didn’t even think it was unusual that the couple call Sophie’s mum on a landline from the hotel. I guess most audiences would notice the lack of mobile phones immediately. The fact that both Sophie and Callum use a video camcorder to record moments in their holiday is another obvious clue. More problematic perhaps is the deliberate placement of a book about the Scottish artist-writer-filmmaker Margaret Tait in their hotel room. Tait died in 1999 and her work has been re-discovered over the last twenty years. It seems unlikely that Callum would take this book on the holiday. So is this some kind of in-joke? Charlotte Wells is unsurprisingly being linked to Lynne Ramsay whose breakthrough as a Scottish filmmaker was in the late 1990s. Tait would be seen as the earlier female Scottish ‘film artist’ from 1950 to the 1990s. In fact all the books Callum has brought are not usual holiday reading. We don’t know much about Callum except that he doesn’t have much money (or at least that is what Sophie thinks).
This brings me to the second and third questions which Wells seems to have been regularly asked on the festival/preview screening circuit. First, the music choices. There are several 90s pop and Indy songs and a particularly prominent song from 1981, ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen featuring David Bowie. Asked about these choices Wells says that they were simply songs she remembered as a child, though she was only born in 1987. She points out that the lyrics from the 1981 song were not necessarily deliberately chosen as important but they were picked out and noted by her editor Blair McClendon. In fact these particular lyrics do seem to be commenting on the narrative. Unfortunately 90s pop and indy is a blind spot for me and I’m not a fan of Queen so I’d never listened carefully to the lyrics of ‘Under Pressure’ before and I had to research them after seeing the film. I also remembered later that Sophie is intrigued that Callum ends the phone call to her mum with “Bye, Love”. Why does he do this, she asks. The songs and especially ‘Under Pressure’ have resonated with younger audiences. This ties in with Wells’ third answer about the possibility that Callum is depressed but is hiding his condition from Sophie. Wells suggests that younger audiences are more ’emotionally literate’ about mental illness and pick this up. I think this makes sense and it possibly explains why Wells herself says that the film seems to be mostly appreciated by ‘Generation Z’ and perhaps Millennials. I think possibly some critics are a little too concerned to be seen to be attuned to what these audiences want. On the other hand, there isn’t universal love for the filming there are gainsayers. If you want to try to listen to the lyrics of the songs, MUBI has a subtitles feature and I think most lyrics are shown?
To sum up, the film is impressive but some audiences won’t ‘get it’ or be interested. Charlotte Wells is clearly a talented filmmaker and the two lead actors are definitely worth watching. Some of the gushing reviews argue that the film’s style is ‘game-changing’. I think that is pushing things too far. But I urge you to see the film and to celebrate the launch of another British filmmaker. I look forward to what she might do next.
Little bit underwhelmed by this, as I think you may have been hinting at, perfectly enjoyable but very much a film to bring your own perspective to. It did very well at LIFF 2022 and has struck a chord with many but the basic premise of grown-up child looking back at incidents from twenty or more years ago is something of a trope, and all the characters apart from the main twosome were largely generic, at least in the girl’s recollection. Nice to see a new director do well. Interesting to see what happens next.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I have to admit that your review and the comment above chime with my own experience. This is a great debut, sensitive and well performed. But reviewers have wildly overpraised this to the point of absurdity, it is not a reinvention of cinema itself, or a life-changing, dazzling anything. While this will get exposure as an awards darling, there will be a sizeable backlash from audiences who have been unwisely amped up to expect something different from the slight, low key drama achieved here. And details like the Margaret Tait book are poorly advised and jarred me right out of the narrative; just tell the story rather than list influences.
Yup, here’s one example…New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott described the film as “astonishing and devastating,” writing that “Wells, with the unaffected precision of a lyric poet, is very nearly reinventing the language of film, unlocking the medium’s often dormant potential to disclose inner worlds of consciousness and feeling…’
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes, I read your review and agreed with it – for some reason I couldn’t comment on it at the time. I confess to being slightly irritated by the strobe lights in the film, but that’s another marker of generational change I think (I’ve never been interested in clubbing or modern dance styles). What is Scott referring to I wonder? The pre-credit sequence uses a rapid montage of processed images from the main narrative that threw me for a while and the ‘transition’ shots at the end are quite clever but the “unaffected precision of a lyric poet”? Many filmmakers have looked for ways of using aspects of changing technologies, both to give their films a different ‘feel’ and to change the ways in which people and ideas can be represented. It’s been going on since the 1890s. Very little in cinema is ‘new’ but the experience of communicating ideas on screen can be ‘freshened up’ and Charlotte Wells appears to have the talent to do that.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes, I agree with the comments here. I was interested in the premise and the rlationship between the girl and her father but I actually though that the determination to base it on her memory and her understanding rather limited the film. I could have done with more about the father and the efforts he was putting into the relationship and also his reasoning for some rather risky decisions he seemed to make. I will try and see it again, am rather hoping it will get onto a BFI dvd!
MUBI have cinema and streaming rights, so the film will presumably not be available for BFI streaming for a while, though that depends on the deal. It might mean that BFI has physical media rights since MUBI doesn’t do DVD releases, at least I haven’t noticed anything.
seems a shame when BBC and BFI put in funding that Mubi should be controlling access . . .
MUBI paid for the rights to distribution in cinemas across much of Europe, including the UK and Ireland. I’m not sure how streaming rights work, but probably in parallel. MUBI has increased its distribution of films in the UK this year and I think that’s a good thing since they provide competition for Curzon and Picturehouse. The BBC put money into the production so presumably they will have broadcast rights in the UK? The BFI puts relatively small amounts of Lottery money into a raft of films as part of an overall policy boost British productions. It got Aftersun for the London Film Festival and has enjoyed the publicity it got via the BIFAs. I suspect the main funder in this co-production was American. MUBI is currently one of the good guys, I think. You could check it out on a free trial?
In fact I’ve just discovered what looks like a MUBI DVD release on 20th February.