Sometimes, when a movie is wholly enrapturing me, when it holds me by the heart, I love putting my notebook down so I can look at the people surrounding me. Usually I discover the audience is equally as enthralled. They’re leaning forward trying to catch every sight and sound in a cup of memory; their eyes are widened; their spirits are as open as their mouths, as though the brain needs both to process what’s on the screen.
There is nothing better than the sight of someone watching a movie (which is an admittedly voyeuristic truth). And the audiences at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival were treated to three movies whose spellbinding appearance enlivened their senses.
Charlotte Wells’ feature directorial debut, for instance, the wistful “Aftersun”—produced by Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski—peers into the past to understand the mental health travails experienced by a father and his daughter.
Set in the 1990s, the seemingly simple plot maneuvers with sharp precision. A young Scottish dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), takes his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a summer holiday to a Turkish resort before she returns to school. In this two-hander, Calum and Sophie take turns with his camcorder to capture their time together. They go scuba diving, lounge by the pool, and play games together. They’re best friends, and are so close in age they’re often confused for siblings. But as the pair get closer and closer to Calum’s birthday, cracks reveal themselves. Calum fights with his mental health and there are already signs that his daughter, in ways she does yet understand, might too.
Every scene in Wells’ taut script comes on like a whisper, each more hushed than the last. These whispers quickly accumulate to make a devastating conversation. In the hands of Corio and Mescal, Wells’ sincere dialogue prods toward darkness without relenting to heavy handedness (Wells also fosters a comfort and genuineness between Corio and Mescal that serves this intimate story well).
When they’re not joking around, the pair succumb to ennui and frankness: Sophie is never afraid to ask her father revealing questions, the kinds that kids throw at you without knowing the hurt that lurks beneath the answer. A grownup Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), who we see in bits and flashes, is looking back at these videos as though she’s trying to piece together the mental pain her father often hid. These videos also recall her coming of age on this trip: Her first crush and her first time noticing how older boys act around women. And as a slightly autobiographical tale, it’s a recollection by Wells of her inchoate beginnings as a filmmaker simply recording her dad.
In this distinctly '90s narrative, Blur and "Macarena" needle drops are used. But it’s a remix of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” set to an evocatively haunting strobe light that obliterates the boundaries between blissful memories and searing nightmares. An assured, aching, vibrant debut by Wells, “Aftersun” is a shattering remembrance of a father by his daughter.
There’s a scene in Polish director Anna Kazejak’s dark road trip comedy “F*cking Bornholm” in which the film’s protagonist, the haggard mother Maja (Agnieszka Grochowska), seems to wash away the troubles she’s experienced on a family camping trip from hell. Her body floats alone, weightless, in the middle of a forested pond. In life imitating art, Karlovy Vary’s ruby red Congress Theater was so packed that some of the overflowing audience laid face-up on the floor in front of the screen to watch.
Kazejak’s film is a wickedly funny dark comedy not afraid to ruffle some feathers because Maja isn’t a perfect person. When her youngest son Kaj (Borys Bartlomiejczyk) tells her and her inattentive husband (Maciej Stuhr) that the son (Oliwier Grzegorzewski) of their college friend Dawid (Grzegorz Damięcki) might have violated Kaj, she responds not just as a protective parent, but as homophobic one too. Especially when she demands the slightly older Eryk, who’s Kaj’s senior by a couple years, be punished. But the film is open about her shortcomings: Dawid’s younger girlfriend Nina (Jasmina Polak), in fact, calls out Maja’s bigotry along with both dads’ gay panic.
Kaj’s story, however, isn't the primary focus of “F*cking Bornholm.” Really, it’s Maja’s feeling alone in a terrible marriage. Her husband stopped looking at her long ago. Now he cares more about their camper and his new expensive mountain bikes than romancing her. While Stuhr is hilarious as the selfish, bemused spouse, Grochowska provides plenty of dramatic angst mixed with glares that could kill.
Some components don’t work: A pining Dawid falls by the wayside in the film’s second half, and the inciting incident also fizzles as an unresolved entryway to learn what ails Maja. And yet, seeing Maja find herself again is a rewarding journey told with brusque humor. Kazejak never succumbs to romantic clichés in a movie that similarly never beats around the bush.
In “Ramona,” a modest yet witty Spanish romantic comedy, writer/director Andrea Bagney similarly does not follow the conventional path. Mostly a two-hander, likewise the plot is simple: Budding actress Romona (Lourdes Hernández) meets the enthusiastic Bruno (Bruno Lastra) in a cafe. The pair begin talking and immediately hit it off. They spend the afternoon in conversation from location to location. By the end, Bruno admits to loving Ramona. Unfortunately for Bruno, of course, there is another guy: Ramona’s chef boyfriend (Francesco Carril).
Though Ramona tries to remain faithful to her boyfriend, when she goes on a casting call she realizes Bruno is the film's director. He quickly offers her the part, although it’s not clear if he respects her as an actress or merely desires her. In the face of her boyfriend’s urging, and against her better instincts, she still decides to do the film. That dynamic in “Ramona” allows it to swoon on the will-they, won’t-they question with easy grace.
Hernández and Lastra share a calm chemistry, somewhere between flirtation and fatalism. The black and white photography in “Ramona” holds a gorgeous clarity akin to a fable. The same can be said of the switches to color that happen whenever Ramona is filming a scene. If a fault exists in “Ramona” it’s the ending: You’re just not sure why the guy she chooses would stay with her. In any case, seeing Hernández and Lastra make meals out of banter while building out their respective internal tensions turns “Ramona” into a refreshing romantic comedy; the film's self-awareness for tropes renders it a sly success.