My lack of connection to Aftersun isn’t borne out of bafflement. What’s core here is the unknowability of a parent to a child, and viewers with different relationships to their parents might easily lock into this aspect of what Wells is selling. This is a theme that’s worked on me in something like 20th Century Women, but here, a link is missing in the film’s broken timeline. Adult Sophie is not a character at all, and young Sophie doesn’t know that she won’t be with her father again when the vacation is over. Therefore, there’s no one in Aftersun to feel Calum’s absence. The viewer can imagine teenage Sophie growing sad and sullen over her lack of contact with her dad, perhaps turning her into the flinty adult that she appears to be based on a handful of wordless shots, but it’s all supposition.
Sophie is operating off of incomplete data about her dad, but what the film gives on him is the low-stakes depression of a quarter-life crisis. Calum doesn’t have as much money as he wishes thanks to intermittent employment, and his first marriage has fallen apart. The material substance of his life doesn’t prevent him from taking a weeklong holiday at a Turkish resort, though the film takes care to mention that he didn’t spring for the all-access pass. Wells includes private scenes of Calum in more dire emotional straits, though where they’re taking place in space and time is a mystery thanks to the premise. Is Sophie imagining her father dramatically spitting at his own reflection in a mirror, or wracked with sobs at his bedside? I wouldn’t be asking these questions if I was bought into his plight, whatever it is. Outside of the broader framing of the film’s narrative, he’s a single father having a nice-enough time with his daughter. Every moment isn’t perfect, so it’s off to the suicide booth? There’s no intimation that he’s going to sever all contact from this point. His actions are mysterious to Sophie and are then mysterious to the viewer, but can the viewer get so worked up about a guy who’s just going to disappear from a daughter he clearly loves without any real insight into who he is?
It'd be easier to write off Aftersun if parts of it weren’t brilliantly captured. Wells is operating in Andrea Arnold territory, fully aware of how children act and react to the world around them. Corio is an incredible find, naturalistic and photogenic. Just watching her take in teen banter like it’s a secret language is enough to recommend me to whatever she and Wells does next. Mescal has big moments like the aforementioned crying jag, but he’s just as compelling in still scenes. Wells’ gift might be for these kind of quiet moments where characters just take in their surroundings, because they take on a peaceful air worth spending time in.
I can’t be convinced of Aftersun’s place amongst the best films of 2022, or any year, but I do wish I could share in most everyone else’s rapturous reception. Maybe I’m depressed because I don’t want to spend almost $1000 on a rug, and I have a mental block about seeing myself on screen through Calum. Wells’ next film, perhaps stripped of autobiographical weight, has the potential to again blow everyone away, and I hope to be a part of the in crowd for that one. C+