Tenderness towards fathers – especially the young, separated fathers of daughters – isn’t one of the great drivers of cinema, or culture in general. Aftersun, though, goes a long way to putting that right. This astonishingly accomplished debut by 35-year-old Scottish-born, New York-based director Charlotte Wells is irresistibly touching.
In summary, the story seems simple. Eleven-year-old Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio, a fantastic discovery from open casting) goes on a week’s package holiday to a budget resort in Turkey (Ölüdeniz) with her father, Calum (Paul Mescal, Normal People), with him turning 31 while they’re there. It’s late summer, the late Nineties. They do just what you’d expect. They manage with a room that’s not quite as advertised. They sunbathe and swim. There’s karaoke, there are dances. They go on a boat trip and a coach trip, they play pool and water polo. Sophie meets other kids and tries a first kiss with a chubby, friendly boy her age.
Sophie is a sparky girl and Calum’s an attentive dad. “Did you have a good holiday, then?” he asks her on their last night. “The best,” she says. “Why can’t we just stay here?” But of course they can’t. Like all such trips, it’s always been on a clock. And, actually, we realise, this holiday is long over already, a memory, an attempt at recovering time past, 20 years later. Although this framing is only sketched in through a couple of brief glimpses, we gather that Sophie, now living in New York with another woman and a baby, has been prompted by her own 31st birthday to realise how young her father was then, how little she understood him at the time – and to recall him as best she can.
The film opens with camcorder footage of Sophie interviewing Calum in their hotel room, joking that he’s 130, turning 131 in two days, naively asking what, when he was 11, he thought he would be doing now. Calum, stressed, tells her to turn it off. “I’ll just record it in my mind’s eye,” retorts Sophie – and that’s what we see.
It is brilliantly shot (by Gregory Oke) and edited (by Blair McClendon) to achieve the texture of eidetic memory. When we see what Sophie herself witnessed, it’s bright, close-up, partial. The film is at once patient and quick about what it shows us, vivid yet elliptical. When we see Calum alone, though, scenes that Sophie can only be imagining, the framing is quite different: off-centre, obscured, reflected, darkened. In one extraordinary scene, Calum sobs inexplicably – he’s seen only from behind, his torso twisting and convulsing, like an image from Francis Bacon.
For we gradually discover that, though he presents such a positive face to Sophie, Calum is damaged. Appearing initially with a cast on his arm, he later has a wound on his shoulder he can’t quite explain either. He’s hard up, a relationship has just ended. When Sophie asks if he’ll ever come back to Scotland, he says it’s all in the past for him. “Once you leave where you’re from you never totally belong there again.” She can be whoever she wants though, he tells her. “There’s time.”
If they’ve come together on this holiday, they’re heading in different directions. Sophie is growing up fast, spying with interest on the couples around them, while Calum doesn’t hope much for his future. When Sophie cajoles their tour group to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”, he can’t accept it. Instead of joining her in karaoke, he lets her limp horribly through “Losing My Religion” on her own. The sound design, score and use of definitive anthems such as “Tender” and “Under Pressure” add enormously to the emotivity of the film.
None of this would matter much if the casting were less good. Paul Mescal is terrific playing a man as much present as he can be, while secretly struggling. Corio, though, is a marvel: just luminous, so observant of everything around her, yet not fully understanding everything she sees (you can tell that she was given only partial scripts and genuinely didn’t know what was going on with Calum until seeing the final film).
Wells has said the idea for Aftersun came to her on looking back at photographs of herself and her father and realising how young he had been then. She went on holiday with him in Turkey aged ten – but “I wasn’t on this holiday, these things didn’t happen”.
The film leaves many gaps in the story, unanswered questions that invite you to share in the film’s sense of loss. Children never understand, until too late, what their parents went through, loving them so much while enmeshed in their own lives. So memorable and moving the first time, Aftersun is all the more affecting seen again. And again. It deserves all the prizes.
This article was originally published on 16 November 2022.
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This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in