By Jason Anderson
The image of Paul Mescal lost and losing himself in a crowded, strobe-lit dancefloor is the most haunting leitmotif in Charlotte Wells’ debut feature Aftersun, a film that would be acutely musical in feel and structure even if it weren’t powered by such a carefully curated selection of underappreciated late-’90s UK chart faves (All Saints and Chumbawamba included). As glimpsed in the flickering light, his face expresses both the loved-up chemical bliss expected of the era’s aging ravers and a more disquieting sense of vacancy; it’s as if he’s not all there. And while that phrase risks being more suggestive of some garden-variety weekender blasted on E, here it means something more tragic. As played by Mescal with great care and precision, Calum is a man with pieces missing, and try as he might through the course of the film he can’t fill those spaces, not even with the love that’s demonstrated in so many large and small ways in his interactions with his daughter, Sophie (Francesca Corio).
It’s telling that this image may only exist in Sophie’s imagination. Fragmentary flash-forwards to the now-adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) and her partner two decades after the beach holiday depicted here destabilize any assumptions that Aftersun ought to be read as a conventional coming-of-ager. Instead, it oscillates between a keen specificity and a hazy, memories-half-remembered quality that connects it with antecedents like Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) and its sunnier, stranger successor Morvern Callar (2002). That quality also connects it with Wells’ own Blue Christmas (2017), the Robbie Ryan–shot short that anticipated Aftersun in its story of family bonds fraying due to a loved one’s mental health crisis.
The success of Wells’ shorts brought her under the wing of Barry Jenkins and his Pastel shingle, so she was well-poised for a breakout when Aftersun premiered in Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique and scored an acquisition from A24. Yet the film exceeds the expectations of even those who had early inklings of Wells’ potential. Acutely observed and deeply felt, Aftersun demonstrates great confidence yet remains remarkably measured—Wells continually finds the means of hitting all her notes without the showier bravado or on-the-nose bids for profundity and poignancy that mar so many first features. In that regard, there’s a striking contrast between Aftersun and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (2021), another recent directorial debut starring Mescal. Though the films share an interest in the thorniest aspects of parenthood, as well as the temporary communities created by sunburnt strangers at swim-up bars and foreign beaches, they couldn’t be further apart in terms of their approaches, intents, and effects: ideas and emotions that Gyllenhaal presents in all-caps and bold type are rendered in much more delicate and elliptical ways in Wells’ film. Starring as the pool attendant hovering at the edges of Gyllenhaal’s moms-break-bad drama, Mescal was one of that film’s most intriguing figures; in Aftersun, he makes the most of the opportunities presented by the leading role here while valuing restraint as much as Wells does.
It’s clear from the onset that Mescal’s Calum has ceased to be a daily presence in the life of Sophie. The reasons for his divorce from her mother are left unstated—as is the full meaning of the “Love you” Calum uses at the end of a phone call with her—but the early scenes of the twosome eagerly beginning their holiday together in Turkey establish the ease they have with each other. Indeed, their dynamic is so free of the usual power struggles between parent and child that it’s not surprising when other young people assume they’re siblings. Nor do they feel particularly put out when they discover they’ll be sharing a double bed rather than sleeping in two twins, due to a travel agency mix-up. Calum’s shows of fatherly concern are largely limited to slathering Sophie’s skin with sunscreen, which every parent will recognize as a fruitless struggle with the elements.
Tellingly, Calum has less connection with the other grown-ups at the resort and the swankier one next door than he does with the teens who fascinate Sophie, her interest in them leading to a few tentative steps away from her father and toward some degree of adolescent independence. There’s a boy she meets in the arcade who stirs new feelings, and older kids who initially seem like they may dismiss or ridicule her as a hanger-on but are happy to have her around, expressing the kindness that’s refreshingly typical of the characters here. But for the most part, Sophie is content to stay close to her father as they swim in the pool, drink mocktails in lounges, putter around the town’s sites of interest, cringe through karaoke night, and dance the Macarena (badly). They also trade off on the mini-DV camera they intermittently use to document their days and nights. Here, it’s Sophie who shifts into the role of observer, as if the girl understands that she ought to collect whatever grainy images and smudgy memories she can so that her older self will have something to obsessively watch and rewatch when the time comes.
Alas, there’s a lot that neither version of Sophie can comprehend about Calum. As much as he strives to stay connected to Sophie (and to the present, via his daily tai chi practice) and his utterly earnest sensitive-dad implorations to Sophie to feel like she can tell him anything, Calum knows he’s disappearing and that there’s little he can do to stop it. One night, his hidden reservoir of pain overwhelms him, driving him away from Sophie and into the night; he drinks too much, and is wracked with guilt the next day. Sophie, however, is not mad at him—she doesn’t seem capable of it. She senses her father’s fragility, and it’s heartbreaking to see her, even at this young age, learning how to modify her emotions and calibrate her responses in order to protect him. Though the older Sophie has her own baby in the later scenes, this is when she first becomes a parent.
Due to the internal pressures felt by father and daughter alike, there’s an anxious quality even to the most buoyant and warmhearted moments in Aftersun. Fittingly, given the film’s abundance of what The Fall’s Mark E. Smith once called “British people in hot weather,” Wells lends a woozy, partial-sunstroke feel to certain scenes, such as a poignant sequence set to Blur’s quasi-gospel anthem “Tender” that eventually takes a more disquieting turn, the song slowing and fraying as if melting in the heat. At other times, the sunlight—as captured by cinematographer Gregory Oke, who also shot Raf (2019), an endearingly odd first feature that Wells co-produced for their mutual NYU classmate Harry Cepka—has a brightness and hardness that’s less fetching than it is potentially migraine-inducing.
As the time to depart nears, it becomes difficult to discern what’s actually observed by Sophie in the past, and what’s remembered (and reimagined) by Sophie in the present. As her protagonist nears a breakdown (or breakthrough) of fevered intensity, Wells drops the needle on the only song that could possibly suit the moment: “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. (Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” is a close second choice, but Claire Denis got to that one first.) It’s a glorious expression of too-muchness that risks shattering the film into pieces, but feels earned because of the subtlety, modesty, and restraint that define the rest of Aftersun. The Situationists and the Sex Pistols may have had nothing good to say about cheap holidays in other people’s misery, but Wells finds a wealth of beauty and heartache in this one.
Charlotte Wells, Cinema Scope Magazine, UK, US