Aftersun peers through rosy girlhood memories to a father’s hidden gloom

Charlotte Wells’s dazzling feature debut shades the joy of an 11-year-old’s resort holiday with her father through the prism of her attempts as an adult to piece together his pain.

Frankie Corio as Sophie and Paul Mescal as Calum in Aftersun (2022)

At their budget coastal resort in Turkey in the late 1990s, Calum, 30, and Sophie, 11, are mistaken for brother and sister. It’s to do with his youthful looks, sure, but also the easy-going, conspiratorial humour they share as they swim, play pool, or film each other with a camcorder. 

Calum is, in fact, Sophie’s father. And if occasionally his genial, attentive parenting skills stumble – too tough teaching her self-defence here, stubbornly refusing a karaoke duet there – he always tries to shield her from a personal desperation and anguish he can’t hold back. It’s only years later, Sophie now probably the same age as her dad was then, that she tries to piece together the troubled man she didn’t know. Still, how close can you get with just hazy childhood memories and grainy digital-video clips?

If adult Sophie’s mission was always likely unachievable, US-based Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells’s rendering of this impossible goal is a rousing success. In a remarkably assured feature debut, Wells somehow merges elliptical, near-abstract impressions of an unresolved father-daughter bond with sharp social-realist observation of Brits abroad. Certainly, anyone who’s ever experienced the doubtful glories of the cheap Mediterranean package holiday will nod in rueful recognition at the scaffolding-clad hotel, or a joyless tour reps-led Macarena.

Such trifles don’t bother Sophie. She’s clearly thrilled to be spending quality, one-on-one time with her dad (her parents are evidently separated and she lives with her mum), though she’s also just old enough to pick up on and probe things that puzzle her. Why, for example, does her dad sign off a phone call to his ex-wife with “Love you”? Why does he answer her innocent video interview enquiry “When you were 11, what did you think you would be?” with a stony, angst-ridden silence?

Corio and Mescal in Aftersun

But Sophie has plenty of other things on her mind too. She overhears teen girls bragging about their sexual encounters. She enjoys showing off her cue skills to impressed twentysomethings. A forthright pre-pubescent lad takes a shine to her. She isn’t on holiday to study her father. It’s not her but the audience who see Calum take a surreptitious smoke on the balcony; and, alone one night, break down in stifled sobs on his hotel bed. The beauty of Gregory Oke’s tactile, colour-saturated images and often semi-obscured framing is that they express both the young Sophie’s oblivious perspective and her older self’s heightened attempt to (re-)construct a picture of her father that won’t ever fully shift into focus.

Wells has form in this. Her short film Laps (2016) detailed a New York subway sexual assault in an intimate, fragmented style, and 2015’s Tuesday examined a teenage girl processing the loss of her father with a deflected, tender sorrow. Comparisons can be made to the sensual, poetic naturalism of fellow Scot Lynne Ramsay – and to the reflected, melancholic glow of Moonlight (2016), whose Oscar-winners Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski are credited as producers here.

There’s a deep, ephemeral sadness at the heart of Aftersun, with disquieting moments such as an unrelenting march into the pitch-black ocean seeming to foretell Calum’s tragic fate. Wells has talked of drawing on a similar Turkish holiday she and her own father took when she was around Sophie’s age, but maintains her film is “emotionally autobiographical” rather than literally so. She deliberately keeps things open to interpretation, even the exact timeframe of Sophie and Calum’s holiday (though Britpop aficionados could pinpoint Blur’s Tender on the soundtrack as the summer of 1999). By holding her mysteries close, she draws us in closer still.

None of this would land as powerfully were it not for the utter believability of the two lead actors as family. Rising Irish star Paul Mescal, fresh from Normal People, again displays his singular blend of brooding masculinity underpinned by aching vulnerability. And newcomer Frankie Corio is a wonderfully authentic presence, somehow nailing Sophie’s unguarded delight in holiday fun and also those moments where, as if the bright sun were swallowed up by a cloud, she suddenly senses that she must put on an act for those around her, not least her own dad. Like Wells’s own achievement, Corio’s big-screen debut is full of vitality, subtlety and promise, in what’s likely to be among the best first films of the year.

► Aftersun is part of the Love strand at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 13, 14 and 16 October.

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