Monday January 16, 2023
Movie Review: Aftersun (2022)
A small criminal of perception. That’s how E.L. Doctorow describes Danny Isaacson, who sees what he shouldn’t see, and notices what he shouldn’t notice, in the 1971 novel “The Book of Daniel.” And that’s the phrase that came to mind as I watched Sophie (Frankie Corio) in “Aftersun,” Charlotte Weber’s’s acclaimed feature film debut.
She’s a Scottish girl on vacation with her divorced father, Calum (Paul Mescal), in a resort in Turkey. Give or take a Turkish rug or phrase, it could be anywhere. The resort has a swimming pool, video games, billiards, karaoke, Chumbawamba. There’s the ocean but everyone hangs around the pool. The sky is full of people parasailing but Sophie and Calum never do it. At the pool, he encourages her toward the littler kids but she gravitates to the teenagers. She’s attuned to their cues, smiles, touchings and trysts. She’s 11 and sees all. We worry for her. She wants to grow up so fast, and such circumstances are never good for young girls in movies.
Turns out we’re worrying about the wrong person.
When did I realize it? To be honest, probably after the movie. I missed a lot of cues. I’m an old criminal of misperception.
The vacation begins poorly. They’re supposed to have two beds but just get a double. Later we see how the resort handles the snafu: They give him a kind of cot, next to the big bed, and he sleeps on the cot. Maybe the resort knows they can get away with it with this guy.
OK, more honesty: I flashed on a trip I took to Portland in the mid-1990s with my then-girlfriend Brenda. I was working in a bookstore, and didn’t have much money, and was probably beaten down. When we arrived in our room at a hostel, it should’ve been obvious that something was wrong. There were used condoms in the wastebasket, the bed wasn’t made, and there were shitstains on the sheets. If it happened today I would yell holy hell, but I hadn’t been traveling much back then, particularly to hostels, and I thought “Well, maybe this is how they do things here.” At the front desk, I waited my turn and then politely explained the situation. What did that politeness get me? Blank stares. I think they just handed me fresh sheets. So we could change the bed ourselves. And we did.
The world knows who to fuck over.
I like a moment after the snafu. Sophie falls asleep on the big bed, and from inside we see Calum on the balcony. He’s moving. Kind of. Is it dance? Is it tai-chi? It feels like something so personal we shouldn’t even be watching.
Throughout, he tries to teach Sophie tai-chi (but she jokes about it), and self-defense (but she’s uninterested), and he tries to get her on the dance floor (but no). Throughout, too, we get flashes of a strobe-lit dance scene, a rave or a disco, with Dad in his cups. And is that adult Sophie with him? Are they arguing? Is it a real scene? A memory? The strobe could be a metaphor for memory: flashes of illumination amid the darkness.
Turns out Calum has money problems. He has work problems. At one point, they visit a Turkish rug dealer who serves them black tea in his cramped store. There’s a rug on the floor, and Calum tells Sophie how the pattern tells a story. He’s enamored of the rug, then finds out its cost, 850 pounds, and the air goes out of him. During karaoke night, after Sophie powers through an off-key rendition of “Losing My Religion,” Dad suggests voice lessons, and she dismisses him, saying he couldn’t afford it anyway. She says it to hurt him, and it does, but she’s smart enough to know that, and caring enough to apologize.
Is it karaoke night when she goes off on her own? With the older kids? They’re flirting, some are making out, but her first kiss comes from the video-game playing kid nearer her own age. I like how he tries a surprise attack on her, in the manner of boys who don’t know how to talk to girls, and she drops him. She’s learned Dad’s lessons after all. We also see Dad looking for her. In a long still shot, he walks determinedly toward the beach, and we want to tell him, “She’s not there, champ,” but he keeps walking straight toward the surf, and we think, “He’s not… Is he?” Yes, he dives in and swims out. It’s night, and Weber holds on the shot, and holds on the shot, and we keep peering into the darkness to see some glimmer that he’s still alive.
He is. Sophie has to get a resort clerk to let her into their room, but he’s there on the big bed, asleep on his stomach, naked, and it’s odd and awkward and leaves us with so many questions. Did he try to kill himself but swam back? Did he get drunk? If so, what was the suicide scene? Right now, he’s just there. He’s in decent shape but like most men there’s a heavy bear quality to him, particularly next to a pre-adolescent girl, and it’s all so awkward.
Calum’s heaviness isn’t just weight. He winds up buying that rug, and later it’s next to the big bed as feet come dangling off. His? No, too thin for his, and too adult for hers. But it is her. It’s adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), the one yelling at him at the rave. It’s present day, and it’s her rug now. Because? Where is he? Near the end of the film, during a bus-tour stop, Sophie gets the other tourists to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for his birthday. He’s above them on some ancient steps, and his reaction is just off. He doesn’t smile. He just stares. It’s not the wrong song to sing, just the incorrect one. There’s nothing jolly there.
I missed bits and pieces—the Scottish—so I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. It’s generally not the type of movie you want to see again: day-in-the-life stuff, in a dull locale with characters who don’t do much. It’s also the kind of movie you want to see again. To see that you missed, or misunderstood. To re-see what you miss.
It’s what adult Sophie does. That’s how the movie ends. Eleven-year-old Sophie waves to Calum as she prepares to board her plane back home, back to her mum, and he films her waving and acting goofy, and they exchange I love yous. And then it’s today and she’s watching the video he took. He’s gone. We don’t know how, we just know it. Of course, she’s gone, too. That 11-year-old girl is gone. It’s awful to say, but every time we saw adult Sophie I felt such disappointment. I might’ve missed the young actress, Frankie Corio, who is amazing and tomboy-cute and heartbreakingly like a little girl; or maybe I missed the possibilities of what Sophie might become. “You can live wherever you want to live, be whoever you want to be,” Calum tells her at one point, and now that’s no longer true. She lives there and is that.
We saw it at the Egyptian Theater on Friday night, and it’s days later now and I keep thinking about it. It’s a movie where not much happens except everything.