Simon’s review published on Letterboxd:
I want to start off by mentioning two things I am a firm believer of:
1) It is nearly impossible to go into any film without any sort of expectations or preconceived notions. Nearly every single thing we hear, read, see, etc., about a film before going in can influence what we expect from it and/or how we approach it, and therefore can further influence our opinion in the end.
2) Films, and all works of art in general, should be approached and engaged with on their own specific terms. We shouldn’t engage with, let alone form an opinion on a film based on what we expected or wanted it to be, but instead look at it for what it actually is and engage with it on its own merits.
With all that said, I went into my initial viewing of Aftersun last week with very, very high anticipation. Not only has just about every single person I trust said very positive things about it, but both my huge soft spot for films centered around parent/child relationships and it being described by many as some intensely emotionally affecting film made me go in almost certain I’d love it. Sure enough, much of Aftersun ended up being a very laid back drama that was largely working for me despite finding it maybe a bit too opaque, only for a specific emotional beat in the third act to happen that I found so jarringly inserted to where I not only (unfairly) wrote it off as “engineered,” but it even somewhat soured me on the whole. In the end, I found the film quite solid if ultimately disappointing and frustrating. While it’s totally possible I also wasn’t in the right mood at the time when first watching it, I later realized a possibility that I didn’t actually engage with the film on its own terms.
So, in spite of my muted reaction, I’ve been thinking more than quite a bit about Aftersun over the past week or so, and was very tempted to give it another shot. I won’t deny I was fairly hesitant given I had just seen it last Tuesday and felt I should give it more time before revisiting a film I was left cold by so soon, but I’m also in the process of trying to catch up on as many 2022 releases I’m genuinely interested in seeing as possible so I can finalize my picks for the “bests” of the year, and in the instance where I eventually revisited Aftersun and ended up coming around on it, I didn’t want to regret not revisiting it before 2022 ended. So, with that in mind, I decided to give Aftersun another chance.
And I’m so, so, so fucking delighted I did.
On my second viewing of Aftersun, even if I still can’t fully comprehend everything Charlotte Wells is conveying due to how puzzling (in a good way) the whole is, it all at least became somewhat more apparent to me. It became clearer the opaqueness and overall abstract nature of this reflects Sophie’s sheer obliviousness w/r/t her father’s depression and his own personal hardships, and with that in mind, the scene I found jarring on my initial viewing made perfect sense to me this time. The reason why it’s edited in that way and happens so late in the film is because Sophie only comes to a realization regarding what her father is going through by the time it was too late, and she’s guilt-ridden and regretful for not seeing it all as a child.
All of this further ties into Wells' direction and the filmmaking as a whole. Something in particular I really picked up on this time is during nearly every scene where Calum isn’t sharing the screen with Sophie, his face either isn’t shown or is at least somewhat obscured, which adds so much given this is a recollection of Sophie’s memories vs what she can’t actually see. Every single formal and music choice (I was shocked to learn within the past week the use of Under Pressure during that one scene was something that only came to mind in post as I cannot at all imagine that scene without it) here in general feels wholly in service of these two characters and the narrative. The sheer confidence and restraint on display alone is nothing short of astounding, let alone for a first feature.
Though I credited Wells for her ability to guide her actors in my initial log, even that I under-credited in retrospect. Upon revisiting, Paul Mescal’s performance becomes so much more impressive once you know what happens later on in the film and what it’s all in service of. While I found his turn in Normal People to be fairly one-note, his “shtick” (for lack of a better term) is totally put to effective use here. However, the best performance in this is a tremendous turn from Frankie Corio, and the chemistry between the two actors is wholly believable.
Even with all of this mentioned, I know I’m woefully underselling Aftersun, and with that in mind, I really do want to write more about it sometime in the future hoping I’ll eventually come up with the words to say, but regardless, it’s exceedingly rare I revisit a film I was muted on so soon after first seeing it—let alone merely six days afterwards—with hopes I’ll warm up towards it, but I’m so, so, so fucking elated I made an exception this time. By going into my second viewing without any expectations or mindset, I was able to finally see and come around to wholly adoring Aftersun for what it is and engage with it on its own terms in spite of going into it with whatever exceptions I had initially. Despite implying Aftersun isn’t this hugely emotionally affecting work many people are describing it as, writing all of this ironically made me realize how touching I find it to be in retrospect. In short, not only a masterpiece and one of the absolute best films of 2022, but also one of the greatest feature directorial debuts of at least the past several years. I now eagerly anticipate whatever Wells does next.