It’s hard to believe AFTERSUN is writer/director Charlotte Wells’s first feature because it is one of the most powerful films I saw at the London Film Festival this year, and one of my favorites. This is a film that left me speechless and teary-eyed as the end credits rolled, not because it is overtly sad in its final shots, but because it evokes emotionally-charged, nostalgic memories of a girl’s adoring, yet complex memories of her father. From its gut-wrenching script and stirring cinematography to brilliant performances from the always-spectacular Paul Mescal and newcomer Frankie Corio, this film is a special one.
Told from 11-year-old Sophie’s (Corio) perspective, the film follows the young girl and her father Calum (Mescal) on vacation to a resort in Turkey. The script doesn’t need overdone exposition to show that this kind of quality time between father and daughter does not happen often. It’s clear Calum and Sophie’s mom are not together anymore and Sophie primarily lives with her mom, so Calum is using this time to bond with his daughter one-on-one.
Calum makes a lot of promises, like getting a new house where Sophie will have her own room. However, he is seemingly the kind of guy that has big dreams and makes big promises, but isn’t great with the follow-through. And it is that tension that causes a bubbling anxiety beneath the surface of Sophie’s interactions with her dad. Sophie is on the precipice between childhood and becoming a teenager, particularly seen in her interactions with older kids at the resort, leaving Calum (and the audience) to wonder if this will be their last vacation like this together.
I love how Wells and cinematographer Gregory Oke create a kaleidoscope of visuals that give the sensation that the film is taking place through Sophie’s memory. Most of the movie is shot traditionally, but some scenes are told through a handheld videocamera, you know the ones dads used to record kids in the 80s and 90s, or reflected in television screens and mirrors. Interspersed shots of Calum dancing in a rave against a black backdrop, with strobe lights confusing the eye about his presence in the scene, further highlight how little we know about the character.
Paul Mescal is one of my favorite actors working today, and his performance in AFTERSUN raises the bar even further. No one can evoke a melancholic, restrained performance like he can, and that is exactly what this character and performance needs. Because the film is being told distinctly from a child’s perspective, Wells leaves Calum’s personal life a mystery. She never truly lets you into Calum’s innermost thoughts or even gives insight into what he does when he is away from Sophie. But you don’t need expositional dialogue and heartbreaking scenes to know Calum is in pain; there is something bothering him and we will never really know what that is. The fact that I was sobbing through what on the outside appeared to be a cute and funny scene of Mescal dancing to “Under Pressure” shows how acutely Wells has the audience in the palm of her hand.
AFTERSUN is the perfect example of what I love about film festivals, finding brilliant, smaller-scale movies that pack a huge emotional punch. It is a story about so many things, memory, nostalgia, grief… but at its heart, the movie is Wells’s love letter to her father, and I can’t think of anything more beautiful than that.
My Review: A