After your life shifts irrevocably, what do you do with the memories of your old self? Can they be honest, or will they always now reflect the post-change you? Could this new lens on those memories answer questions you might not have known you had? It’s these swirling, nigh-impossible questions that Charlotte Wells’s remarkable debut film Aftersun concerns itself with, as a woman looks back on a holiday she took as kid in the ‘90s with her charming but melancholic young dad. It’s a tender and sad poem of a film, all sense memories and missed moments adding up to something really devastating.
This girl is Sophie (Francesca Corio as a kid and Celia Rowlson-Hall in the brief flash-forwards to her adulthood), an 11-year-old at a mid-budget holiday resort in Turkey with her 30-year-old dad Calum (Paul Mescal). It’s a trip that is fun but fraught with meaning, the last summer where Sophie will really be a proper *kid*, before teenagehood throws everything into disarray, an impending deadline felt keenly by both child and parent. As we grow up, we record all our firsts, but it’s often our lasts that stick with us, even if we don’t realise their finality at the time, and Wells captures this piercing sadness very well.
Aftersun mostly ambles loosely through its story, focusing in more on sensory moments (the brief shock of hitting the water after a dive, the noise of someone else sleeping etc) and the incredible bond between Mescal and Corio. They both play it beautifully and it’s real breakout stuff for Corio. Their shared laughter is infectious and the moments of strain are tragically moving; you can feel both characters’ instant regret when it goes wrong, both all too aware of any wasted time between them. Mescal is particularly good as a man both elevated by his love for his daughter but also in a near-perpetual struggle with his own mental state.
If you didn’t know, it would be hard to tell Aftersun was a debut film. Its locations whenever it leaves the resort are grand and stunning, while the all-bangers soundtrack must have cost a pretty penny. This ambition of scope is matched by an ambition of style, Wells rarely taking the easy or obvious route with her shots and cuts whilst the lighting is just gorgeous. Her close-ups are magical, especially in the repeated sequences of Calum gently applying aftersun lotion to Sophie’s face after a day by the pool, a magical and hypnotic display of tender parental love.
It takes a bit of time for Aftersun to really reveal what it’s doing but once all the pieces fall into place it is heartbreaking, a dance sequence that is returned to again and again collecting more and more meaning and significance until the dam eventually breaks. A hymn to broken but loving parents and the confused but loved children they leave behind, Aftersun feels like a deeply personal act of remembrance or reckoning, but the tidal wave of feeling it’s capable of unleashing will be truly universal.