A daughter struggles to reconcile the memories of a long-past vacation that she and her father took in Aftersun.
Any child who’s lived through their parents divorcing knows that there’s an unmistakable awkwardness that invades every event soon thereafter. Sophie (Frankie Corio) experienced this firsthand when her father (Paul Mescal) took her on a surreal vacation to a Turkish resort when she was just 11.
It’s clear from the onset that this is not your typical vacation. Their room is cramped, and her father has to sleep on a tiny roll-out mattress in the small space next to the main bed. He also can’t afford most of the extra, lavish amenities that all of the other guests enjoy. He’s painfully disconnected and distant. This pivotal moment in their lives is being overshadowed by a deeper truth well beyond the scope of an 11-year-old’s faculties to fathom.
It’s time for a joke. Ready? Who does Polyphemus hate more than Odysseus? Nobody! Don’t get it? Just wait. I’ll explain it shortly — which is the hallmark of every good joke, right?
The first feature-length film from writer/director Charlotte Wells has dominated the film festival circuit, leaving in its wake a crowd of swooning critics. It’s also another excellent example of the often cavernous divide between many critics and the general viewing public.
Wells’s effort lacks the most basic element of how to tell a compelling story. Without context, the tale that she creates is nearly indecipherable or, worse, it leads you down completely erroneous paths. When the story begins, there’s nothing to let you in on exactly whom to care for or why. I spent the first 40+ minutes of the film thinking that it might be about a pedophile father out to groom his daughter on this crazy trip to a romantic getaway. Just look at the picture below. Is this a loving father stroking his daughter’s hair or a predator finally ready to take the next step? Wells gives you nothing to distinguish between the two, and in point of fact, she gives you reasons to think the worst. Several disturbing scenes using strobe lights paint a dark, foreboding image. Time and again, the film teases a large reveal only to end up in the most boring of all possible endings. Breaking News: Sophie’s dad sucks at being a father.
Someone might make the mistake of saying, “Oh, but Rich, perhaps you lack the perspective to fully understand this story.” My own parents divorced when I was… wait for it… 11 years old. I lived this journey. I have some of the very same types of memories, yet none of it resonated until after the movie ended. I’m sure that, if I watched it again, I’d have a different experience, but that’s not a selling point. I should not have to watch a film twice to enjoy it or to only enjoy it after the credits roll. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I’d much rather enjoy my cake while I’m eating it, not just in thinking about it after I finish.
Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the importance of how to grab an audience. He underscored the crucial necessity of letting them in on where the story is heading. By doing so, the audience buys into the characters and the story. Without that connection, the payoff lasts only a few seconds instead of much longer. That’s the exact problem here. By failing to set your expectations from the outset, Wells sells her own story short and wastes award-caliber performances from the film’s two main stars.
So what’s the deal with the joke? For those of you who didn’t read The Odyssey or have long since forgotten it (like me), the Greek hero Odysseus tells his foe, the cyclops Polyphemus, that his name is “Nobody.” It’s a classic “Who’s on first?” routine. The problem is it’s just not funny without first understanding the context. Unfortunately, the only joke here is the one that this film plays on its own audience.