Starring Paul Mescal, the Scottish director’s deeply moving portrait of a troubled father-daughter relationship is one of the best British debuts in recent years
Think about the holidays you took when you were on the edge of being a teenager – do they stand out as somehow fresher, more vivid in your memory than the other ones? It’s a thought that came to mind watching Aftersun, Scottish director Charlotte Wells’ miraculous first feature, about a formative trip to Turkey taken by an 11-year-old girl called Sophie (Frankie Corio) in the late 90s with her depressed father, Calum (Paul Mescal, slipping into yer da’s pool sliders at the tender age of 26). To call it a tearjerker feels like an insult to the acute sensitivity Wells brings to the material, but it’s safe to say the Normal People star will be breaking a few hearts with this one – reader, there was not a dry eye in the house.
At the Cannes world premiere on Saturday, Wells shyly introduced her film as putting “all my past and present, my hopes, fears and ambitions on a 50ft screen”. No biggie, then, and Sophie is clearly intended as an avatar of sorts for the director, a fact that’s underlined by the story’s time-hopping structure. Through a handful of flash-forwards to the present, we understand that Sophie’s trip is being remembered by her older self as a means of reconnecting with her father, who, it is implied over the course of the film, is no longer in her life. We can certainly guess as to why that may be, but there are no answers to be found in the story, which intersperses old camcorder footage with childs’-eye-view recollections of what went down all those years ago.
For 70-odd minutes of its runtime, Aftersun plays like an autobiographical reminisce in a low-key lyrical mode, all fleeting moments of joy and pain between father and daughter. Sophie stands on the brink of adolescence as the story’s events unfold, and is only just beginning to sense that all is not well with her dad. Newcomer Corio brings a preternatural sensitivity to the role, matching Calum’s playful moods on the upswing and softening instinctively when she senses his inability to cope. And Mescal is fantastic as a man locked inside his own pain, cleverly shot by Wells with his back forever half-turned to the camera or in tabletop reflections, as if mirroring the effort of remembrance being made by the latter-day Sophie, and the abandonment issues she feels.
Sophie is also learning more about herself, of course, and the film has fun following her adventures with older kids from the resort, whom she studies for clues about impending teenhood as if they were secret signals from another universe. Likewise, anyone who took an all-inclusive holiday on the Med in the 90s will feel a rush of recognition at the many period-specific details Aftersun nails, from the macarena-dancing dads to the clueless tour reps and paper-skinned karaoke stalwarts. But what really distinguishes this film, and makes it one of the most best British debuts in recent memory, is a gear-switch that takes place somewhere in its final third, where Wells begins telling her story in increasingly bold, expressive strokes. It peaks with a heartstopping dance between Sophie and her father, set to Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”, that seems to melt away time and the distance between the two. It’s a scene that is hard to watch and impossible to forget, in a film that reminds us that memory is an act of continual reinvention.