Charlotte Wells’ debut film Aftersun tackles the fallibility of the parent and the limitations of childhood perspective in a bold, complex realisation of a short period in the lives of a father and daughter on holiday.
A24’s and MUBI’s major sell of 2022, Aftersun has a deceptively simple premise: Calum (Paul Mescal) and his daughter Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio) are on holiday in a Turkish resort at an unspecified moment in the 1990s. The pair are often mistaken for siblings as Sophie is a precocious 11 year-old and Calum is only 30. Scenes of Calum and Sophie doing the standard holiday activities are broken up with home video footage (very nineties) and ambiguous snapshots into the future. There is an ongoing sense of foreboding throughout the film, the source of which is unclear without further reading into Calum’s character and his behaviour when Sophie is absent. It’s a filmic version of the first realisation that your parents are real people and not simply there to take care of you.
It’s difficult to believe that Aftersun is a debut. Director Charlotte Wells spent seven years developing the film, which she calls “a piece of fiction,” with a foundation in her real-life relationship with her father. Wells completely tears apart the conventions of filmmaking and rearranges them in a wholly original way, scenes are shot from multiple perspectives using the reflective objects one might find in a hotel room, an innovative way to show the multidimensionality of human experience.
There is a beautiful piece of sound editing in an early scene in which the slow steady breathing of sleeping Sophie transforms into the deep slumbering breaths of Calum the next morning. The audience becomes aware in scenes like these of the bond between the two, and how they replicate each other in moments when communication fails.
Paul Mescal has already developed a taste for picking the most intriguing projects. After the success of the 2020 miniseries Normal People, Mescal had a small part in the Netflix adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. Aftersun is his largest part yet and an incredible addition to his oeuvre of work. Mescal often portrays men amid internal turmoil, caught between the demands of their masculinity- as a father or popular student- and their worsening mental health. Wells’ observant camera cuts to Calum’s convulsing back as he cries silently alone reminding us that many men carry their pain internally.
Mescal has a tenderness and vulnerability that draws us to him in any scene he gives the impression of a man using any method he can (Tai Chi, smoking when his daughter is asleep, offering to pay for things he can’t afford to make her happy) to keep it together for Sophie, who can sense, as children often do, the thinly disguised suffering of their parent.
Sophie is the perspective through which we see the holiday therefore we never gather a real reason behind Calum’s mental state but may excavate clues from the dialogue such as his uncharacteristically hostile response when Sophie asks what he thought he would be doing at 30. The whole film is imbued with that end-of-holiday dread we all feel, the sense that wherever you travel you still can’t escape yourself.
The character of Calum is refracted through Sophie’s memory like sunlight across the bottom of a swimming pool. We see through the eyes of the 11-year-old and the older version of Sophie (Celia Rowlson Hall) attempting to reach a revelation about her father through home videos and her own subjective memory. Frankie Corio is superb as Sophie; she has all the maturity and worldliness that almost-teenage girls have, caught between the desire to hang out with the older kids but still needing her dad to put sun cream on her back.
After Sophie’s first kiss, Calum says she can share anything with him as she grows older, “I’ve done it all and you can too,” he just wants to know she’s safe. It’s a testament to the bond between Mescal and Corio that their relationship is not only believable but familiar, a rare affectionate portrayal of dads and daughters.
A brave debut with clear vision, Aftersun is a film like no other and possibly the best of the year. Both tender and understated, Aftersun is the cinematic equivalent of being carried in, half-asleep after a long car ride home. Wells constructs an intimate portrait of a family holiday which dares its audience to dive beneath the surface. Ultimately the film teaches us that we will never know what our parents have done for us or the ways in which they have loved us even when it has been the most painful.
Aftersun is in cinemas now.