One of memory’s cruellest tricks is to remind us that we often didn’t know we were living through our most significant moments. That unkindness is at the heart of this wonderful, opaquely moving debut feature from Charlotte Wells. Paul Mescal is convincingly Scottish as Calum, a youngish father holidaying in Turkey with Sophie (Frankie Corio), his 11-year-old daughter, during the late 1990s. That scenario is redundant with potential threat. Might Sophie go missing? What about these older boys lurking in the back of the resort? The film lumbers upon no such gimcrack drama as, uninterested in three-act structures, it gently evades the conflicts that screenwriting gurus often demand. Lay aside cheap expectations.
Aftersun is relaxed about its setting, neither sneering at the package-holiday aesthetic nor camply celebrating its now-unfashionable structured entertainments. The director does well to let us see the action both through the unquestioning gaze of the child and the regretful reflections of the adult woman. Shown only glancingly, that grown film-maker – like Wells, apparently now resident in the United States – has videotapes of the holiday to help reassemble her past. Cut in with Gregory Oke’s crisper 35mm footage, the videotapes show a happy couple joking and waving their way from pool to bedroom to airport. Yet something is forever dragging the idyllic flow. Aftersun’s greatest achievement is to gradually reveal the imminence of a tragedy that, though never explicitly confirmed, feels inescapable by the already celebrated final shot. It is hard to think of another film that has pulled off this trick so effectively.
None of this could hope to work so well without strong performances from the two leads. Despite being hampered by lockdown conditions, Mescal and Corio somehow established an uncannily firm connection. Separated from the child’s mother, though apparently still on decent terms, Calum comes across more as an older brother than as a father, but we do see his efforts – in very millennial fashion – to establish a benign hierarchy. “You can talk to me about anything – whatever parties you go to, whatever boys you meet, whatever drugs you take,” he says in a voice loaded with North Atlantic embarrassment at unveiled emotion. Mescal just about conceals a nagging unhappiness that only fully takes over when Calum is not in immediate contact with his daughter. There is a sense of a man ever eager to place his head in his hands.
Aftersun is about noticing what we didn’t notice at the time (something more prevalent in the age of ubiquitous video recording). All this is implied. Corio’s staggeringly natural and unforced performance gives us an intelligent child who notices when things are awry but isn’t yet mature enough to assemble the ominous pieces into a forbidding whole. Aftersun is a sad film mostly concerned with a young person being happy.
Indeed, pass the picture by at a fast walk and you could mistake it for dreamy nostalgia. The cinematography has the saturated quality of already-outdated Kodak Instamatic. The songs are picked not for their retrospective coolness – you will listen in vain for My Bloody Valentine – but for their ubiquity in contemporary Mediterranean resorts. The film’s fulcrum comes when, at a karaoke session, Frankie sings a then-popular American classic with just enough honking atonality to seem human but not so much as to edge the scene into comic territory. All this comes together as a gently wound bundle of reverie and regret.
Produced by Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, Aftersun premiered in the quieter International Critics Week sidebar at Cannes to raves of which Wells can scarcely have dared dream. Now already penciled in for many critics’ annual top 10s, the film is certain to encounter a backlash. It will survive that. One for the ages.
Aftersun is released on Friday, November 18th