Writer-director Charlotte Wells’s poignant father-daughter drama Aftersun is a lyrical, impressionistic childhood reminiscence that weaves past and present to create the textured experience of memory. The deceptively simple story centers on 11 year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio, making a stunning debut) who, in the early 1990s, is enjoying a vacation at a budget resort in Turkey with her caring, 30 year-old father Calum (Paul Mescal) who is divorced from Sophie’s mom.
Wells and the film’s editor Blair McClendon construct a visual and aural experience that brims with elegiac melancholy aided by their deft use of camcorder footage and intricate sound design.
Sophie and Calum share a tender, easy bond as they swim, sunbathe and joke around. But this is tempered by a vague sense of sorrow and loss. Even though nothing particularly bad happens, we sense Sophie’s impending, inevitable breakaway from childhood into adolescence when everything will change.
Brief, repetitive shots of Calum and an older Sophie dancing in a pulsating, strobe-lit nightclub unfold in another place and time or, perhaps, only in memory. But it hints that the sun-drenched holiday was the last that Sophie took with her father.
The bittersweet tone of the film is beautifully conveyed by Mescal, who was terrific in the Hulu series Normal People and who is a dark horse best actor Oscar contender for this role. With a single look, he communicates all of Calum’s regret, insecurity and yearning.
Aftersun’s depiction of a loving parent-child relationship sears the heart for the joy it contains and for the mourning with which it is inextricably, achingly bound.