Tuesday 22 November 2022

What we did on our holiday: "Aftersun"

 is a small, wispy film - a textbook illustration of the semi-promising debut - which has been talked up as a very big thing by people whose job depends on getting you to believe that the cinema has more life in it than it presently has. If Charlotte Wells' debut proves anything, beyond that festival reviewing is now largely a matter of finding the right hyperbole to match the demob-happy mood, it's the influence of Lynne Ramsay on the next generation of Scottish filmmakers. Twenty years on from Morvern Callar, here's another ultra-allusive account of a Mediterranean package holiday, grounded by sporadic notes of realism: the hotel that's subject to noisy construction work, the messed-up booking that ensures father-and-daughter pairing Calum and Sophie (Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio) have to share the same bed - doubly uncomfortable, given the unexplained cast on dad's wrist. It's not paradise, then, but it'll do. On the surface, the film is almost pedestrian in its ordinariness: some sightseeing, rather more lounging around by the pool, punctuated - come sundown - by that dreadful all-inclusive entertainment that has traditionally driven British holidaymakers to the drink. What my colleagues seem to be responding to so ecstatically is what lies a quarter-inch below the film's surface, suggested by these characters' determination to make the most of it, and to take care of one another (e.g. applying the titular lotion, one dad-daughter bonding ritual) while doing so. Something's going on here, undeniably; it's just that someone, be that dad or director, isn't immediately letting on what. Weirdly, this Caledonian production turns out more withholding and more stiff-upper-lipped than the broadly English Living.

We'll get to what's being tamped down in due course, but it's quickly clear that Wells has picked up good marks for her filmmaking grammar, which is all in place and carefully thought through: very precise, potentially revealing close-ups of her leads, stroboscopic inserts that introduce some darkness amid all the sunlight, choppy, handheld camcorder footage that underlines our growing suspicion that all parties are here to make memories. It's possible the film is at least in part autobiographical; if so, then it would appear Wells has spent a good fifteen or twenty years thinking about how best to retell it on a big screen. (One curveball: odd little flashforwards to the adult Sophie, now an artist of some kind revisiting that camcorder footage for personal and/or professional reasons.) The grammar needs to be in place, not least to persuade us to stay the course, because this is (and this is what those adulatory reviews don't tell you) one of those films where nothing of vast import - nothing you wouldn't ordinarily see sitting around the hotel pool - is unfolding before the camera for long stretches. (For a while, you may even wonder whether Wells hasn't made the arthouse equivalent of those movies where Adam Sandler packs his pals off to a resort for a good time on the studio's dollar.) If the reveal - why this holiday is especially poignant - even counts as a reveal, then it too is no big thing, a reveal of very ordinary, commonplace circumstances. While I was watching Aftersun, I kept flashing back to this summer's sleeper hit The Quiet Girl, which was equally precise in its composition, but found an actual story to fill its frames, where Wells turns in a What I Did On My Holidays essay. The leads are likable, which has also clearly helped. Corio is sparky and unmannered; casting director Lucy Pardee deserves credit for finding one of the few child actors in the country who hasn't been Sylvia Younged, and therefore can't hold a tune when developments demand it. And Mescal won't do his emergent heartthrob status any harm by playing a 21st century update of Athena Man; it's nice that this girl should have someone looking out so attentively for her. The film is nice, too, in the way some holidays and some festival stints are nice. But Aftersun often seems so concerned with being nice that it forgets to be especially dramatic, or even really that interesting.

Aftersun is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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