The up-and-coming Scottish director Charlotte Wells made her full-length feature debut with Aftersun, which premiered in the Critics Selection at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. The film was flagged as something to look out for when it was announced that producing partners Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski were attached to the project. However, it has gained even more recognition with its recent nomination for the Best First Feature award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Aftersun finds Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her young father, Calum (Paul Mescal), on vacation in Turkey. We meet the two in their shared hotel room, an immediate sign of their close relationship, which will linger throughout the film. Sophie is not old enough to hang out with the teenagers staying at the hotel, but she no longer wants to play with girls younger than her. Enticed by the other universe in which the teenagers exist, Sophie wrestles with how to define herself as she becomes her own person – a person no longer attached to her father. She must also navigate her relationship with Calum: while her father seems a gentle and enthusiastic man, beneath his stacks of literature on meditation and tai chi, he is losing an internal battle.
What makes Aftersun unique is the way the story is told. It becomes clear to audiences partway through the film that the narrative is retrospective, weaved together with camcorder footage that bridges the past and the present. Memory becomes the basis of the film as Sophie reflects on a defining experience in her childhood and, even more so, on how she remembers her father. Aftersun is not stuffed with dialogue; instead, it captivates audiences with silence.
While the narrative of the film is incredibly moving, the technical elements are just as captivating. Wells and her team capture the air of vacation in the pigmented hues of the turquoise pool and the tropical drinks that line the hotel buffet. Shot in 35 mm, Aftersun uses many conventions of realist filmmaking: a standout being the use of on-location shots, some drenched in sun, and others submerged in the water. There is a subtlety to Wells’s filmmaking. She leaves clues scattered throughout the film that only the active viewer will pick up on, forcing you to engage. She also records people with an air of sensitivity, capturing the emotions and feelings of each character without judgment. While many shots are of faces and bodies, others are just parasail wings in the sky, colourful stripes amidst a sea of blue.
Wells has proven herself a force to be reckoned with – she has even been described as a director who is reinventing the language of cinema – but female voices are continuously underrepresented in Hollywood. The “Celluloid Ceiling,” which surveys the reality of women working in film and television, showed that in 2021, while the film industry was making strides in inclusivity, only 17 per cent of the top 250 highest-grossing films were directed by women. These challenges are even more prevalent for women of colour who must also deal with the institutionalized racism that still plagues the industry.
While multiple female directors are in the public eye, their tokenization makes it feel like the strides made are much more significant than they really are. In the 94 years since the inception of the Academy Awards, only seven women have been nominated for Best Director, and only three have won the award. Consider the situation of Olivia Wilde this past year. She became a topic of discussion not so much for directing her second feature film but for her relationship with a certain famous pop star and the controversy that followed. Women have always been present as directors in the film industry; one of the most influential filmmakers in cinema’s history was Agnès Varda, who paved her way as a director in a male-dominated period of cinema’s history. But the sad reality is that despite decades of fighting, sexism is still present
Martin Scorsese has explained in multiple interviews that the film industry is clogged with superhero blockbusters. While these films fill a certain niche, the future of cinema cannot rely on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Popular cinema often compensates with dramatic turns and grand imagery, but Wells’s film skips these unnecessary ploys with a simple story that is more interested in the human experience. What makes the movie most effective is that there is no grandiose statement. Aftersun is simply about grappling with one’s memory. Wells has said in multiple interviews that there is room for everyone in the film. There is no lesson to learn or message to understand; rather, it is an experience that will be different for each viewer.
Discussions on the future of film are often distorted and confused by box office targets and streaming services, but its trajectory is becoming more clear. Women are crafting works that do not fit into set genres. Consider Joanna Hogg, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Chloé Zhao – the first woman of colour to win the Academy award for Best Director – all women producing bodies of work that are subversive and that make you think. Carving a place for themselves in the film industry is a constant challenge for women, but there is hope for a promising future, and Wells is a part of that. The first-time director may be a new face in the industry, but she has proven herself a name to remember. Aftersun is an inspiring piece of modern cinema because it transcends boundaries and shows a new future of film: one full of personal and inventive stories told by women.