Aftersun – Critics Cheer, Viewers Marked Down (2.5*)

Aftersun is, for most viewers, a rather boring but sensitive story of a young father and his 11-year-old daughter on vacation at a beach resort in Turkey. surreptitiously woven into this story is another, more tragic tale - but good luck to the casual viewer trying to find it.

Aftersun – Snapshot

Aftersun is, for most viewers, a rather boring but sensitive story of a young father and his 11-year-old daughter on vacation at a beach resort in Turkey.  Surreptitiously woven into this story is another, more tragic tale – but good luck to the casual viewer trying to find it. (2.5*) 

Where to Watch:

Stream: Showtime

Rent: Prime/Vudu ($4); Google ($5); Apple ($6)

Aftersun – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations:

Leading Actor (Paul Mescal)

Aftersun received a single major nomination for Mescal playing a troubled father of an eleven-year old girl.  This is Mescal’s first Oscar nomination.  Born in 1996 in Ireland, his first major acting experience was in Normal People, an Irish TV mini-series, in 2020.  He had a minor supporting role in The Lost Daughter (21).

Mescal lost the Leading Actor race to Brendan Fraser in The Whale, as did Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin), Austin Butler (Elvis), and Bill Nighy (Living).  It was a first-time nomination for all five men, which is a little unusual.  While I enjoyed all of their performances, I think either Fraser or Farrell deserved the award based on the complexities of their role.  Nonetheless, Mescal’s performance, in conjunction with his cast-mate, is worth a view just for the acting!

Mescal’s partner in Aftersun was Frankie Corio who was born in Scotland in 2010 and made her feature film debut in this movie as Mescal’s 19-year-younger daughter, Sophie.  They made such a convincing father-daughter team that it is difficult to believe just fourteen years separates them.  If Corio continues this kind of performance, we will likely see her on the Oscar nominee list.  (I couldn’t find any other Oscar connections among the crew for this film.)

Aftersun – The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One (and if you like these films, you might like this one):

(None that I could find.)

Aftersun was written and directed by Charlotte Wells, born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1987.  Although she has done a few shorts, this is her first feature-length movie.  Most of her crew is also young, with most of them starting film careers only in the last ten years.  As a result, I couldn’t find any linkages that American filmgoers would likely recognize.

Aftersun – What Others Think

Aftersun is another example of a film the critics raved about, but the viewing public really didn’t enjoy nearly as much.  Viewer ratings, based on more than 84K ratings, placed it in the bottom half of our movie list. Viewers rated it tied with Living and To Leslie.

Critics, though, using their own unique lenses, thought this movie was the best of all 39 movies on this year’s list.  And that includes rating it higher than all the special interest films – documentaries and international features.  

Robert Daniels (RogerEbert) noted the “amazing” dynamic between Corio and Mescal finding “they are so comfortable with each other.”  But mostly, Daniels, and all the other critics raving about this film, found its beauty in the nearly subliminal structure of the movie in its portrayal of the adult Sophie’s attempt to connect with her Father.  Ben Kenigsberg (RogerEbert) summed it up when he wrote “What makes the film special has nothing to do with story and everything to do with how Wells has broken down the push-pull dynamic between father and daughter into poetic, thoroughly cinematic moments.”  Leigh Singer (Sight&Sound) wrote “Charlotte Wells’s dazzling feature debut shades the joy of an 11-year-old’s holiday with her father through the prism of her attempts as an adult to piece together his pain.”  (We’re going to discuss these themes more in the last section.)

Aftersun – Special Mention

European Tourism and Movie Making in TurkeyAftersun is filmed, in its entirety, in Turkey which I didn’t quite understand.  Calum takes his 11-year-old daughter on an end-of-summer vacation trip to Turkey, of all places, which isn’t exactly a top spot on American vacation lists.  But it turns out that, for 2023 at least, Turkey has become the second most popular vacation destination for Europeans, recently replacing France, and second only to Spain.  Europeans are enthralled with its sunny weather, abundant beaches, delicious food, and an intriguing history at the intersection of Europe and Asia.  It certainly helps that European currencies go far in Turkey.

Besides being puzzled about vacationing there, I was also a bit surprised that it was filmed entirely on location in Turkey.  Turns out that Turkey has an active film industry and, while not on the same scale as Hollywood or British Cinema, Turkey’s movie industry is doing just fine.

“Aftersun” the Word – Although I paid close attention on my second viewing, I don’t remember any mention of the title of the film anywhere during the movie.  Looking it up, I found that the word is used to mean a moisturizing liquid used to soothe sunburn.  Since Calum and Sophie do spend time in the sun, there is an immediate need for it.  And there is one scene, in particular, where the two of them apply sunscreen to each other’s backs and arms.  So the reference is implied, even if not mentioned.

Aftersun – Michael’s Moments

Aftersun is, as mentioned above, a movie highly regarded by professional critics, but not appreciated much by the viewing public.  It serves as a great example of how the two communities view films very differently.

Generally speaking, the viewing public likes movies that are entertaining either in story, character, action or because of visual and auditory stimulation.  We’re not opposed to being educated, but if we’re going to spend two hours passively engaged with a screen – whatever the size – it needs to be interesting.  Aftersun tells the rather boring story of a young father, who doesn’t live with his daughter, taking her on a vacation to Turkey, spending a week at an inexpensive resort, and engaging in those things one does at a beach resort, like playing games, swimming, and soaking up the sun.  Not a whole lot happens on this vacation.  Yes, there is one night where Dad, maybe after having a bit too much to drink, separates from Sophie, and walks, fully clothed into the pounding surf.  The music and the sound of the waves reaches a crescendo, the screen fades to black and, the next thing we see is Dad passed out and naked, lying face down on Sophie’s bed.  She enters the room, finds him there and, sort of awkwardly, covers him.  

That scene is, apparently, the first climax of the movie. And that night was the climax of the trip.  So what, exactly, are we supposed to make of all that?  And was it worth the 102 minutes?  If you are a normal movie watcher, I kind of doubt you’re going to get a whole lot of enjoyment from this film.  Sure, there is a tender father-daughter relationship and you want their seeming affection to endure forever and maybe rub off on your own family relationships.  But you are constantly asking “where the hell is this story going?”

It turns out, though, that this is not the story you are supposed to feel in Aftersun.  There is, in fact, another story underneath all that.  One that is so subtle that – unless you are alerted in advance, or have some prescient understanding of this film’s backstory – it is going to go right over your head.

The riddle in Aftersun is suggested in a rather curious way and only in very brief interludes.  I found them when, after researching this movie, I knew what to look for and when it was signaled.  Most of these “clues” if you will, occur when the lighting turns to strobe effect – where, literally, unknown characters are on a dance floor gyrating to pulsating music and strobe lights.  We don’t know who they are, nor why we are watching them.  These strobe scenes occupy maybe a total of 2 minutes in a much longer movie.

The first of these scenes occurs just a minute or so into the film.  Another one at 35 minutes, and the third at 56 minutes. The fourth starts at 1:15 and is immediately followed by two women, whom we haven’t seen before, rising from a shared bed to take care of a crying baby.  These scenes are all extremely cryptic, but they are at the core of why the critics thought this was such a special movie.  When you see them – on your first, naive, viewing – they make no sense whatsoever.

Then at 1:30 – movie is almost over – we get our last strobe scene.  Now, at least one of the characters becomes clear.  It is Calum and he is dancing with a woman.  But neither of them appear to be happy, almost a sense of anguish.  Then we discover that the woman he was dancing with was actually watching home movies – the very same home movies that Calum and Sophie had taken of each other on their Turkey vacation.

Nobody is going to tell you how to interpret these scenes.  But this film was written and directed by Charlotte Wells, a young Scottish filmmaker.  She has stated that the film was “loosely autobiographical”.  She, like Sophie in the movie, lived with her mother and only knew her father through periodic vacations.  He died, of unexplained circumstances, when she was 16.

The critics love Aftersun because it gives them all kinds of things to talk about.  There is, of course, the biographical relationship to the filmmaker.  There is the pleasure and excitement of figuring out what these little cryptic scenes mean and how they relate to the huge bulk of the picture.  They reinforce the almost smug notion that critics, because of their native abilities and special insight into movies, can figure things out when normal viewers can only feel a kind of empty relief that the film is finally over.

I’m always one for a good puzzle – I love films like Glass Onion.  But movies do not exist solely for critics, nor for filmmakers to selfishly dwell in their own personal feelings.  A good movie doesn’t need to be a blockbuster, but it should have audience appeal and it shouldn’t need special gimmicks to make it work.  (2.5*)

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