Friday, December 9, 2022

Tender is the Night: AFTERSUN

They say poetry is about the words that aren’t written, music is the notes that aren’t played, and sculpting is a matter of carving away everything that isn’t the intended shape. Aftersun is a movie like that. It is precisely told. It builds up the unspoken and the unsaid so fully and so evocatively that its pinpoint emotional turns hit all the more overwhelmingly for having been suggested instead of stated outright. Writer-director Charlotte Wells, in her debut feature, here tells the story of an 11-year-old girl on a vacation with her thirty-something father sometime around the most recent turn of the century. (My, how quickly our present became past.) We gather she spends most of her time with her mother in Scotland, so this summery week at a mid-range resort in Turkey is clearly meant for a rare sustained moment of father-daughter bonding. The movie is exactly that simple: an anecdotal story that observes these two characters in a tender moment. It’s also delicately perched on a precipice—a last fleeting moment before tipping over into something new. She’s naturally on the edge of massive change—curious in tentative ways about the opposite sex, about her place in the world, about how others perceive her, and how she sees others. She’s trying to figure out how people relate to each other, and how she can, too. Her young dad is similarly in flux, with plans for the future, a desire to maintain a healthy relationship with his daughter, and sublimated emotional currents, symbolized by the cast on his arm, that are held back for her sake.

I’ve been trained by decades experiencing stories of melodrama and misery to fear an explicit tragic turn with this setup. Indeed, there is a certain suspense hanging over some of the proceedings—an ear for the potentially ironic. A line about birthdays, or scuba diving, or the passage of time, or a stray reference to sexuality or substance abuse, can press with the weight of expectation. But the movie’s too sensitive and circumspect and real to push toward such explicit drama. Instead, it finds a genuine love between father and daughter, and a casually-worn insight into the spaces between the world of an adult and a world of a child. To the eyes of a grown-up audience, a certain fragility and danger can sit in scenes where the father allows his child to wander the resort, or adolescent figures crowd near as specters of looming diminution of innocence, or a momentary lapse in judgement leaves the pre-teen to fend for herself for a brief span of time. But the girl’s remaining childhood innocence is both a protection and vulnerability—neither quite needed, but the scrim of retrospection hangs heavily. Threaded throughout are scenes shot from a camcorder. The first, in fact, is also the last—a heavily pixelated goodbye that’s then rewound. Here’s a movie dreamily, melancholically, past-tense. It’s nostalgic in the purest sense of the term in its original Greek: the pain of returning.

This rewind—punctuated with the pop and whir of old tech punctuating intuitive remembrance—leads into a memory poem of a film that delicately folds back in on itself by the end. Its diaristic, impressionistic structure isn’t a mystery to solve, but clarity that slowly comes into focus in soft lighting and gentle observation. Scenes in their room, at meals, games, pools and sightseeing, unfold with the precision imagery and sounds of the most frangible memories. There’s such lovely, low-key attentiveness in performance and staging and sound here—a glance, a gesture, a murmur of affectionate advice, a slow slipping mistake, an earnest apology, a song, a smile, a dance, a helping motion. It’s a child’s hair softly teased with a kind hand. It’s a shared satisfaction in a game, or a view. It’s a sudden frosting-over of interactions and a slow, inevitable thaw.

In the performances of Paul Mescal (Normal People) and Frankie Corio (a winningly natural debut), we see how much unspoken import passes between parent and child—the longing for connection, the imbalance of power, the loving, the imperfections, and the loving despite and because of those imperfections. It’s about the slow shift in dynamics, and the circular nature of their mutual sympathies. What makes the movie especially special, moving, haunting, is its attention to detail—a keen eye for physicality, a sharp understanding of the weight a word—or its absence—can have in the memory. The movie’s approach is built around the loneliness they feel together, a slowly widening self-consciousness, and looming sense of aging and loss. There’s a feeling that this is a Final Moment, though it never tips its hand for why, exactly, it feels these two might never meet again. We return at the end to the beginning—a goodbye, except, as the camcorder closes, this one feels like forever, and like a memory to which she, and we, will need to return.

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