Producers: Adele Romanski, Amy Jackson, Barry Jenkins and Mark Ceryak Director: Charlotte Wells Screenplay: Charlotte Wells Cast: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Brooklyn Toulson, Sally Messham, Spike Fearn, Harry Perdios, Ruby Thompson, Ethan James Smith and Kayleigh Coleman Distributor: A24 Films
One has to be patient and attentive to appreciate the jewel-like facets of Charlotte Wells’s debut feature, a memory piece that points to mysteries that viewers must ultimately figure out for themselves.
The bulk of “Aftersun” consists of footage of a vacation that a Scottish father and daughter, Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio), took at a Turkish resort in the nineties. Sophie, eleven, is a child but an exuberant and inquisitive one, yearning after maturity. Calum is just at the point of turning thirty-one (indicating how young he was when Sophie was born).
Much of the time shows the two enjoying their time together swimming, lounging at the pool, taking shopping trips, visiting the beach, eating at the hotel brunch—though there are scenes showing them travelling to the resort, suffering a few hiccups along the way, like a mix-up in the accommodations. There are also sequences in which Sophie, encouraged by Calum, spends time with other youngsters at the place, enjoying a motorcycle arcade game with a kid her own age (Brooklyn Toulson) but gravitating toward the older kids, teens engaged in behavior typical of their ages. Calum also lets her sip a beer, and she gets a first kiss. Wells, cinematographer Gregory Oke and editor Blair McClendon employ a mixture of conventional coverage, rather jumpily shot, with camcorder material made by Calum and Sophie during their trip, which is of course marked by the vagaries of composition and off-center visuals such amateur stuff entails.
All of this is acted by Mescal and Corio, and the entire supporting cast, with impressive naturalness; much of it suggests a rather endearing father-daughter bond. But there are moments that imply deeper undercurrents at work. Calum and Sophie’s mother are separated, and reference is made to his checkered business past; a question that Sophie poses to him on camera—about what dreams he had when he was her age—not only goes unanswered, but leads to his breaking into sobs when alone. He’s wearing a cast on his arm that’s never explained but indicates something he’d not care to talk about. And when the two of them make a stop at a carpet shop, he becomes entranced by one item that he later returns, alone, to buy and lie down on—though it’s obviously beyond his means.
Add to this that what we are seeing is seen through the scrim of imperfect memory. There are sporadic inserts of an older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), perhaps of the age that Calum was then (and apparently now a mother herself) watching the tape of the vacation of two decades earlier, seeing (or imagining) her father dancing furiously on a crowded nightclub floor while she struggles to reach him and become his partner. A long closing segment shows Calum dropping Sophie off at the airport after their return to Britain and following her longingly with his eyes as she scampers off, and then walking sadly down a corridor and out a back door. Add to that a scene, whether memory or imagination, of Calum at a beach removing his clothes and walking into the water.
Clearly this is a profile of loss and grief, of a daughter grappling with memories of a father who has long been absent from her life and whom she is struggling to understand in retrospect. But Wells does not ladle out the information in easily digestible doses; instead she has packaged them as a collage of images and words that intrigue and challenge. Other factors that contribute to the overall impact are Billur Turans’ production design, Frank Gallacher’s costumes, the spare score by Oliver Coates and Jovan Ajder’s sound design.
“Aftersun” is a penetrating portrait of a daughter’s search for a father that, as a child, she barely knew. It’s a film that demands a good deal of the viewer, and a most promising debut from a filmmaker for whom one suspects it represents a very personal journey.