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Now in her 30s, a Scottish woman looks back on the joy and melancholy of a childhood vacation she took with her father 20 years earlier, as memories, real and imagined, unfold as she tries to reconcile the father she knew with the man she didn’t.
Paul Mescal (The Lost Daughter, Normal People) earned the BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination for his role in the film. Writer/director Charlotte Wells earned the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut Film. She previously directed Sundance Award-winning short film, Laps.
Scottish writer and director Charlotte Wells has announced herself in grand fashion with her heartfelt and personal film, Aftersun, the kind of slow-burning, brimming with subtlety work that’s true impact sneaks up on you after the credits roll.
The film’s resonance lies in its bittersweet view of the disparity between memories and truth. As the adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) reminisces over the last holiday with her father Calum (Mescal) when she was 11, her more objective adult view of the trip suddenly brings more light to who her father was. Through videos and memories (with Frankie Corio as the younger Sophie), her retrospective look becomes revelatory.
To the young Sophie, Callum is simply her father, a young man who seems not unlike an older brother. At 11, the realities of adult life aren’t yet upon her, beyond knowing Callum struggles to hold down regular work and earn money. The adult Sophie, however, can look back and see how the burdens of responsibility were weighing on her father.
Wells’ beautifully written film perfectly captures the carefree joy and escape a holiday can bring whilst subtly conveying the crushing specter of a vacation’s impending end. So much of what is expressed in this film is though what’s unsaid, particularly from Mescal’s portrayal of a young father cripplingly at odds with his mortality.
Mescal is a revelation. If his Oscar nomination was unexpected — Aftersun is a stripped-back indie production flying under the radar — it was certainly deserved. It’s the most understated performance of the awards season selections. He manages to mesh boyish charm with a deeper, barely-contained angst. Frankie Corio is also phenomenal in a striking debut, as the story is as much Sophie’s, a young girl at a key turning point in life, even if she wasn’t realizing this at the time.
Aftersun quietly reels you in, and when its big moments hit you, they really hit, with dazzling visual metaphors and the resonance (and re-workings) of iconic songs. You’ll be thinking about it for weeks after finishing.
A lingering film, powered by the performances of Paul Mescal and newcomer Frankie Corio, Aftersun is a perfect example of “show don’t tell.” Even when the pace threatens to push you away, it hooks you back in with striking cinematography, ambiguity, and a powerful climax. Absolutely beautiful writing.
Patience, your full attention, and a box of tissues.
The film deals with some complex themes about growing up, as well as struggling with mental health issues. Not an easy watch, but gripping and touching.
The style of the film feels autobiographical. When asked about her debut feature in a Variety interview, Wells admitted the tone and feel of the film are grounded in her own recollections, although the story itself is not based on her life.