Since the New Orleans Film Festival ended in early November, my inboxes (both physical and virtual) have been overflowing with FYC Awards Screeners. Within the two-hour span of pressing play on a movie and checking my phone during its end credits, I’ll have received two or three more titles fighting to make their way into my eyeballs. It’s an unrelenting flood of #prestigecontent presented in low-res, watermarked glory. As much as catching up with this season’s “Best of the Year” contenders (some of which won’t reach wide distribution until early 2023) before this month’s SEFCA vote can feel like a marathon homework session, it has been pretty illuminating about how these year-end lists take shape. I always wonder how the 100+ new releases I see every year are whittled down to the same 15-20 titles repeated & rearranged on pro critics’ & voting bodies’ “personal” Best of the Year lists, even though they presumably watch even more new releases than I do. The answer, apparently, is marketing. The FYC discs & emails sent directly to critics’ doorsteps are a huge part of the narrowing-down process. Since I haven’t received any FYC screeners for some of my personal favorites of the year (so far)—Neptune Frost, Inu-Oh, Mad God, Jackass Forever, etc.—I’m meant to assume there’s no way to build momentum for their nomination, and thus voting for them will essentially be a waste of my microscopic modicum of clout. It’s frustrating that money & marketing are the answer to the mystery of how critical consensus is formed, but in retrospect I should’ve assumed that was the case from the start.
The reduction effect of movie marketing doesn’t start with Awards Season screeners, though. It’s a year-long process, starting with the Sundance Film Festival in January and picking up steam during Cannes in the spring, months before reaching its FYC screeners crescendo. For instance, take the small, intimate, festival-circuit drama Aftersun, which is currently being marketed as a formidable awards contender by A24. Every single film festival of merit—from mid-tier conversation starters like Sundance to the cultural juggernaut of Cannes to the regional community events like NOFF—are overstuffed with movies exactly as substantial as Aftersun. Most of those films do not land proper distribution and are never heard from again outside a few stray critical raves in their festival roundups. Aftersun is one of the lucky ones; it made it past the first, second, and third rounds of marketing-driven consensus culls, premiering to ecstatic enough reviews at Cannes that it’s now being shipped out to critics’ homes with an official FYC stamp of approval. Maybe this process is necessary. Maybe if no one was able to peek over their shoulder at each other’s homework, there would be no room for consensus at all, as Aftersun would be competing with hundreds of other slice-of-life indie dramas on its budget level instead of dozens. Either way, I still often find this year-long ritual bizarrely arbitrary, as I cannot personally tell the difference in quality of what Aftersun achieves vs. the intimate, small-scale dramas I catch at NOFF every year that never reach theaters outside the fest.
If I’m avoiding talking about the movie itself here, it’s because there isn’t much to it. Charlotte Wells’s debut feature is a stubbornly understated, bittersweet nostalgia trip – time stamping its period setting with “Macarena” dance routines & MiniDV camcorder footage. Paul Mescal stars as an emotionally troubled, recently divorced father of one. His blackouts, arm cast, and meditation techniques suggest he’s struggling with either anger or addiction issues, but we don’t get the full story. Instead, we ponder him through his preteen daughter’s precociously discerning eyes like an exotic zoo animal. She is embarrassed by her dad’s tucked-in t-shirts and cheesy dance moves, but she can’t quite pin down what’s happening in his mind. So, we can’t either. He consciously teaches her how to do new things the way a proper dad should, but subconsciously condescends to her the entire time in a way that maintains a cold, emotional distance. There are also things she has to learn on her own, observing the zoological mating rituals of the older teens who stalk around their getaway vacation resort. Her digi camcorder footage adds layers of innocence, nostalgia, remorse, and alien fascination on these teen & adult behaviors, with no pressure put on what any individual scene means with the larger-scope, slice-of-life story. Mostly, we just spend a few days with a somewhat troubling, somewhat adorable father-daughter duo, wondering if the dad’s occasionally sentimental treatment of his daughter as his “wee poppet” is enough to outweigh the emotional damage of his frequent recesses into his insular, dark moods.
There are distinguishing touches to Aftersun that might explain some of its continued critical acclaim beyond the festival circuit. There’s a strobelit framing device that appears to be set in a modern-day nightclub, but gradually reveals itself to be some subliminal dungeon of the grown-up daughter’s mind where this ghost image of her father still dwells. It’s a psychic space that grows in its onscreen significance as the movie closes in on its final ten minutes, which leave you feeling as if you’ve watched something much grander & more emotionally impactful than a modern reenactment of 90s home video vacation footage. The two main actors—Mescal & Frankie Corio—also put in excellent, measured performances throughout, never straining the father-daughter intimacy of individual scenes to reach for anything grandly melodramatic. It’s a good movie. I just don’t know what to say or feel about it beyond that, because it’s not an especially unique one, no matter how personal it may feel to its director. Refer to the closest film festival near you to see more solidly Good films just like it, and refer to future year-end lists and televised awards ceremonies to see which ones got a decent marketing push.