Aftersun Is The Best Movie Of 2022 That No One Knows How To Talk About

Earlier this year, I wrote about perhaps one of my favorite movies of 2022, Charlotte Wells' "Aftersun," and how it masterfully weaves together a story of grief and closure. An earlier draft of that piece included anecdotes from my life, and while my experience with losing a parent is not exactly comparable to the film, I connected with it in a more intense and unique way than my peers. I removed those anecdotes from the final product to avoid divulging too deeply into my personal life, but my message in that piece remained the same: those who have lost loved ones at young ages will likely relate to how "Aftersun" depicts the lifelong grieving process attributed with such a terrifying experience.

However, with the film now available on digital platforms, there's been a strange shift in how people have talked about the film. Clips and screenshots have been shared without context, racking up hundreds of retweets and likes. Some people have begun calling "Aftersun" empty at best and emotionally manipulative at worst. Others have hyperbolized it, calling it one of the best films ever made.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but there is a common thread in these types of reactions — the implication that the film is meant to be universally palatable. Many of the films made and promoted in our current era are structured and promoted as such, but "Aftersun" is not one of these films. Framing a piece as specifically personal as something meant to resonate with a majority of people does a deep disservice to the distinctive film.

'A personal filmmaking bucket'

What's important to understand about the film is that Charlotte Wells has been open about how her own life inspired it. In a recent interview with The Guardian, she said how she used the memories of her own relationship with her father to piece together an ultimately fictitious, but still personal story:

"I suppose I like to put 'Aftersun' in a 'personal filmmaking' bucket. I enjoyed figuring out the film as a story and making choices that served [the] film. And I enjoyed figuring out who these characters were, that were unquestionably based on myself and my dad, and our character traits were the basis of Callum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie's (Frankie Corio) character traits. But at the same time, I like filmmaking and in this script, it was always about serving this film."

"Aftersun" is not a one-for-one autobiography, and Wells makes this clear in that same interview, highlighting how its craft has often been overshadowed by its personal nature. However, that very nature is key to understanding how layered and nuanced the film is. The feeling of grieving a parent you never got to truly know is one that many people will never understand, but those that do will know that it is a complicated one to explain. Wells did a damn good job at adapting these emotions into art, but many viewers, both complimentary and critical, have misinterpreted these same emotions as purely for aesthetics or shallowly metaphorical. It's not hard to see this as a reflection of the current state of storytelling.

Everything is tired

When you look at the non-blockbusters that have been released in the past few years, a lot of them sound more optimistic than films have been in a long time. Damien Chazelle's recently-released "Babylon" ends with a clip-show montage about the magic of movies. The most recent Best Picture Oscar winner, "Coda," is about a young girl making her Deaf family proud of her. "Top Gun: Maverick" subverts its predecessor by not featuring any deaths during aerial training or combat. There are probably many more examples of this feel-good trajectory in film, but Polygon's Joshua Rivera described this trend best as "the all-consuming maw of spectacle" in a time where we want to pretend that everything is universally fine.

"Aftersun" is not a movie that is made to be gawked at. It is unassuming in its emotional core, initially framing itself as a melancholy vacation between a father and a daughter. It isn't until you watch it that you understand what's actually happening between joke-fuelled dinners and awkward mingling. However, because of our popular culture's desire to extract normalcy from everything, its nuances have become watered down in online film conversations and two-sentence Letterboxd reviews. Its depictions of faulty memory get labeled as empty, its scenes of embrace become out-of-context Twitter videos, and the personal and specific emotions are twisted to apply to as many viewers as possible.

The line between art and content

If these can be applied to "Aftersun," they can be applied to any movie made without consideration for current filmmaking trends. Many movies nowadays, mainly mass-produced by streamers, seem manufactured to be as self-aware and pointed as possible. It seems like scenes like the Chris Pine joke in Disney+'s "Pinocchio" are written and shot to be screenshotted and shared on social media. Because they want us to forget how terrible the world is, Hollywood has started using these cynical engagement tactics more and more.

The problem, of course, is that this prevalence has resulted in movies created outside of this system being treated as if they are. Think of how "The Fabelmans" was recently labeled as a film "made to appeal to people who applied to Julliard" or how you can't go a day without somebody using a clip of Mia Goth in "Pearl" as a reaction meme. Movies are not meant to be only judged based on how many hot takes or memes come out of them, and the reaction to "Aftersun" serves as arguably one of the cruelest examples of this.

My little mind camera

I probably should have been able to predict the way "Aftersun" would get discussed in reviews and social media communities. However, I also understand that I can't force anyone who hasn't experienced what I've experienced to view things from my perspective, so is there really a point in policing how others react to the movie? Of course not, but that doesn't mean the story of "Aftersun" deserves the impersonal interpretations and reactions it has been receiving since its release. By rejecting its niche and personal nature in favor of a more palatable perspective, critics and casual viewers alike are forcing the film to conform to a standard it was not meant to be viewed through.

I'll end this piece with one of the anecdotes I removed from my original essay. When I saw "Aftersun" at TIFF, I realized that I probably saw the movie in a painfully unique light. As I rode down the theater escalator and exited the building, the sobs I had been holding in began breaking out in spurts. I walked aimlessly on the streets of Toronto, a migraine forming from how hard I was trying to hold back from wailing until I stumbled across a combined A&W and Pret-a-Manger. There, I got dinner and texted my father. I told him that I loved him and that I loved my mother. He said he loved me back, he always would, and that he knew that she always will, too.