I spent the last 10-15 minutes of Aftersun trying, and failing, to keep my emotions in check. That isn't a spoiler. It's just a statement about the cumulative power of the film, and my own inability to sometimes stop myself from turning into a blubbering mess. Aftersun is trying to capture the essence of a few different things - a father-daughter relationship, the way our memories change as we look back on them with different information, that holiday abroad when you're a child, and more - and it succeeds in everything it sets out to achieve.
Paul Mescal plays Calum, the 30-year-old father of 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio). The two of them are on a summer holiday in Turkey, a holiday that Calum wants to make as perfect as possible, in terms of having fun with his daughter and reassuring her of how she will always be able to discuss everything in her life with him. There's an underlying tension though, emphasised by the fact that what viewers are seeing of this holiday is being filtered through some videotape recordings and memories of the adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), interspersed with some dream imagery of her unable to reach her father in a sweaty rave environment. Calum might not have the money and resources to always give Sophie what he thinks she deserves, while Sophie is at a stage where she alternates between enjoying innocent fun and wishing that she was already as old as the teenagers she assumes are much cooler than her.
This is one hell of a film from writer-director Charlotte Wells. The fact that it is her feature debut is utterly astonishing, especially when I cannot think of another film in recent years to have so thoroughly shaken me to my core (in a good way). I am still struggling now to consider the film without having another serious case of leaky eyes. I could mention the brilliant soundtrack, one that keeps reminding viewers that most of the film is set in the early 2000s, I could mention the framing and shot choice throughout (especially when making use of a small hotel room, mirrors, and the glass door/window to the balcony), but it all really comes to the writing and the performances. Every main scene here rings true, whether it's briefly watching an unfortunate parent berate a child that has pushed his luck too far or that feeling of being at an arcade machine, visualising the games you might play, and then being fortunate enough to have someone offer to pay for you to have another shot on it. And that's before I get to the beautifully-portrayed relationship between Calum and Sophie, both trying to treat one another with love and respect, but also never knowing exactly what their mental state is. Aftersun is a reminder of so many things, so many moments that viewers will find familiar and resonant, but one of those things is that we only ever have the faintest idea, if any, of what others are going through.
Mescal has already received a lot of praise for his performance here, and deservedly so, but Corio is equal to him. Both feel absolutely right in their roles, whether on their own or (more often) alongside one another. Both are also allowed to be good people, and they're allowed to be imperfect, and the fact that the holiday we're witnessing crystallises so many memories, providing so many small moments that become larger and more powerful over time, gives Mescal and Corio the room to layer plenty of nuance over their work. Almost every dialogue exchange can be turned around, dug into, and dissected in so many different ways. Thankfully, Wells does have a definite tale to tell here, meaning that we aren't left with something unsatisfyingly ambiguous.
I would like to put together so many more words to motivate people to watch this film, including praise for Rowlson-Hall, praise for the cast of teens convincingly playing holidaying teens, and praise for what may now be the best use of "Under Pressure" in a movie soundtrack (stealing the crown previously held by Grosse Pointe Blank), as well as a complementary and perfect score from Oliver Coates. I have to stop now though. I'd like to namecheck everyone, from the cinematographer to the editor, but I need to step away now, to shake off a film experience that has left me happy, a bit heartbroken, and stunned.
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