11-year-old outgoing girl Sophie (Frankie Corio) is on vacation to Türkiye with her young dad, Calum (Paul Mescal). Their budget hotel may not be the best, but this doesn’t matter, as long as they have each other.
The two share a close loving relationship being almost more like brother and sister than father and child. There is a dark side to this trip however, as this is the last time Sophie and her father will ever be together. 20 years later as an adult, Sophie reflects on this vacation and can see her father in a different light. The joy they both shared on that sunny holiday being far from the thunderstorms raging within Calum’s head. Memories both recorded and remembered play out as Sophie tries to better understand the man she loved but didn’t truly know.
Aftersun is the debut feature from writer-director Charlotte Wells. What began as a work of fiction became almost autobiographical during development, looking back at her own father and drawing from her youth, making Aftersun a deeply personal film.
This leads to a very honest and realistic depiction of both mental health issues and the relationship between Sophie and her father. That realism reaches to minor auxiliary characters behaving just like everyday people rather than ham-fisted plot devices. There is very little in the way of melodrama or any overly theatrical outbursts of emotion. Some may find this subtle slow-burn approach not to their liking as we largely just watch two people on vacation. But it’s what is under the surface which makes this movie so effective.
Thees awkward moments between father and daughter are viewed largely through Sophie’s eyes. As a young girl, not even a teenager, many things go over her head. Looking back as an adult Sophie, and we the audience, pick up on hints of something much more troubling in Calum’s behaviour. Referring to this Sophie the child might say “It’s okay” but Sophie the adult understands that it wasn’t.
With only two main characters, the casting of Sophie and Calum was of paramount importance. Corio and Mescal share a chemistry fitting of their characters’ more sibling-like relationship. At times, Calum’s unfortunate failings as a paternal figure lead to Sophie needing to take care of him. You can see these characters love each other deeply, but again the dynamic is slightly off.
Paul Mescal has earned himself an Oscar nomination with his performance in this picture. He faces stiff competition this year, but he deserves credit for bringing this flawed human to life in such an engaging way. Calum is never unlikeable, and his demons rarely ever affect his role as a guardian. But they are always there, eating away at this broken man putting on a brave face for his kid.
Newcomer Frankie Corio does an amazing job herself hitting the ground running in this lead role. Besides the core focus of Calum’s mental health, Aftersun is a story of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. On her vacation, Chloe strives to grow beyond the little girl image her father has of her. This too is done in a very natural and realistic way thanks to both Corio’s performance and Wells’ direction.
Visually, Aftersun is stunning thanks to cinematographer Gregory Oke, from the sun-bleached Türkiye locations reminiscent of high contrast, saturated photographs, with ample use of camcorder footage and scenes often filmed through reflections giving the film a voyeuristic quality. In comparison, the modern-day setting is realised in a more much more colourful contemporary style.
Since Aftersun isn’t loaded with overtly emotional and almost cheap attempts to pull at heartstrings, it may not have hit me in the feels as hard as other films. That is not to say I felt nothing watching this movie, as Wells has crafted a film which encouraged me to look at my own youth and relationships my own parents. As such, Aftersun is a film which left its impact on me long after leaving the cinema.
Charlotte Wells’ impressive debut is a melancholic and nostalgia fuelled film about the relationship between father and daughter. It is essentially the story of a woman trying to reconcile the strong man she knew with the damaged human he truly was. Sincere performances from Corio and Mescal bring home what is one of the most honest and genuine films I’ve seen in years.
Aftersun opens in cinemas on February 23, 2023.