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Aftersun is All Grown Up 

click to enlarge I'd love to go out but I'm just really busy.


I'd love to go out but I'm just really busy.

AFTERSUN. "Coming of age," outmoded notion though it may be, continues to be an object of fascination, in art as in life. In order to contextualize transition and ostensible maturation, we continue to construct and promulgate myths, demarcate arbitrary boundaries and assign significance to moments of arrival. As time marches on, though, we (the species) might be approaching acknowledgment of how ephemeral, even manufactured the idea is that, sometime in a given day or year or decade, we are supposed to have breached the barricades of uncertainty and insecurity. Then we're delivered unto the wise, easy rest of our lives.

Thinkers and sensitives (artists) see the fallacy, Charlotte Wells among them. With Aftersun, her first feature and the culmination of a series of fascinating shorts (seek them out on YouTube), Wells quietly announces herself as an artist in undeniable control of technique, with probably unanswerable questions to ask and the tenacity to explore them, regardless. This is a coming-of-age story in which the characters engage, with limited success, in the struggle to understand there is not really an age we come to, just the constant process of not knowing what to do, of confronting the chimera of maturity and reckoning with the absence left in the wake of the people in our intimate lives.

That makes it sound pretty heady; it is, but it is also beautiful, deceptively simple and accessible, with a familiar, lived-in ease tinged with the discomfiture of genuine emotion.

Sometime around the turn of this century (we gather from the diegetic music and dearth of social media), 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her 30-year-old dad Calum (Paul Mescal) holiday at a seaside Turkish resort. They lie by the pool, scuba-dive and shop for beautiful rugs Calum cannot afford. Sophie's parents are separated but not estranged; she spends most of the year with her mother. Unsurprisingly, Sophie is more perceptive, capable and mature than Calum thinks. And, we observe, probably more than he himself. And so, the dynamic between the two is a familiar, if uneasy one, almost more like very close friends, each testing the patience of the other while also operating from a place of assumed, usually comfortable familiarity. They know each other well enough to realize there are aspects of each other they may never fully understand.

The scenario — father and daughter, misty eyes, Harry Chapin song swells in the background — could be a minefield of cliches and usually is. A lesser artist would show us the week from either Colum or Sophie's perspective: a little girl slipping away into early adulthood or a troubled dad trying unsuccessfully to conceal his shortcomings. And, as has so often been the case, we would be left with a pat reconciliation, some ham-fisted unaddressed trauma or the sort of manufactured ambiguity that only exists in the minds of overpaid writers. But Wells is consummately capable of sitting with discomfort and examining inner lives with both ruthless honesty and profound compassion. She has, through the exercise of those skills and a formidable cinematic vocabulary, created a humbly brilliant portrait of two people as close while also as far away as people can get from one another.

Aftersun resists the temptation to bend everyday occurrence to the convenience of storytelling, instead letting those little moments expand and contract as they do in our lived experience, so they feel just as fleeting and monumental as when we experience them. Sophie, a surprisingly capable pool player, falls in with some teenagers who, eventually, get drunk and engage in sexualized poolside nonsense. Because we are trained by the dishonesty of truncated narratives and the assumed need for conflict, we at first fear Sophie's safety. But she is treated respectfully, not targeted.

When she does kiss a boy (age appropriately), the moment is imbued with uncertainty and excitement, but not the false danger of narrative impatience. And when she tells her dad about it, she does so with a self-assurance that nearly inverts the hierarchy of their relationship.

When Colum, lost in himself and subject to unknowable suffering, stays out late and locks Sophie out of their room, she sleeps in the hotel lobby until someone shows up with the spare key. He, apologetic but lacking the vocabulary to contextualize his struggle for a daughter rapidly becoming more mature than him, must acknowledge his shortcomings without some epiphany or grandiose resolution.

All of which demonstrates Wells' ability to focus her story, but also to allow it to venture into the unreachable inner lives of those with whom we ostensibly share the most. Aftersun acknowledges the notion that we may never grow up, at least not the way we're trained to expect. And in spite of our own self-doubt and fragility, someone else may still rely on us. R. 102M. PRIME.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed due to earthquake damage. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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