Aftersun: Five stars for Paul Mescal's new film.  This is one for eternity

Aftersun: Five stars for Paul Mescal’s new film. This is one for eternity

after sun

director: Charlotte Wells

certification: 15A

With: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Brooklyn Toulson, Sally Messham, Spike Fearn

Duration: 1 hr 42 min

One of memory’s cruelest tricks is to remind ourselves that we often didn’t know we were living through our most significant moments. That unkindness is at the heart of Charlotte Wells’ wonderful, opaquely moving debut film. Paul Mescal is convincingly Scottish as Calum, a young father vacationing in Turkey with Sophie (Frankie Corio), his 11-year-old daughter, in the late 1990s. This scenario is brimming with potential threats. Could Sophie disappear? What about those older boys lurking at the back of the resort? The film doesn’t rumble on any such gimcrack drama, but rather, uninterested in three-act structures, gently avoids the conflicts that script gurus often demand. Put cheap expectations aside.

Aftersun looks laid-back, neither mocking the package tour aesthetic nor celebrating its now-defunct structured conversations. The director does well to let us see the action through both the child’s unconditional gaze and the adult woman’s regretful reflections. Only glimpsed, this adult filmmaker – like Wells, who now appears to be based in the United States – has videotaped the vacation to piece her past back together. Overlaid with Gregory Oke’s crisp 35mm footage, the videotapes show a happy couple joking and waving from the pool to the bedroom to the airport. But something keeps pulling the idyllic river on. Aftersun’s greatest achievement is its progressive unveiling of the impending tragedy, which, while never explicitly confirmed, feels inevitable by the already acclaimed final shot. It’s hard to think of another film that has pulled off this trick so effectively.

It couldn’t work out so well without the strong performances of the two main actors. Despite being hampered by lockdown conditions, Mescal and Corio somehow formed an incredibly solid bond. Separated from the child’s mother, while still seemingly decent, Calum comes across as more of an older brother than a father, but we see his efforts – in very millennial fashion – to establish a benevolent hierarchy. “You can talk to me about anything – what parties you go to, what guys you meet, what drugs you do,” he says in a voice full of North Atlantic embarrassment at undisguised emotion. Mescal almost hides a nagging sadness that only comes into its own when Calum is not in close contact with his daughter. One gets the feeling that a man is always eager to put his head in his hands.

Aftersun is about noticing what we didn’t notice then (something that’s becoming more common in the age of ubiquitous video recording). All of this is implied. Corio’s amazingly natural and unforced performance gives us an intelligent child who senses when things are going wrong but isn’t mature enough to piece the ominous pieces together into a menacing whole. Aftersun is a sad film that mainly deals with a young person being happy.

In fact, take a quick stroll past the image and you might mistake it for dreamy nostalgia. The cinematography has the rich quality of the already outdated Kodak Instamatic. The songs weren’t chosen for their retrospective cool—you’ll hear in vain on “My Bloody Valentine”—but for their ubiquity in contemporary Mediterranean resorts. The film’s turning point comes when Frankie sings a then-popular American classic at a karaoke session with just enough honking atonality to come across as human, but not so much that the scene veers into comic territory. It all comes together in a softly wrapped bundle of reverie and regret.

Produced by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, Aftersun premiered in the quieter sidebar of Cannes’ International Critics Week with raves that Wells could hardly have dreamed of. The film, which has already ranked in many critics’ annual top 10, is sure to face backlash. It will survive that. One for eternity.

Aftersun will be released on Friday November 18th

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