Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio are a riveting father-daughter duo in Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’ outstanding debut about memory and depression set on a Turkish resort.
One of my most anticipated films of the 2022 Cannes film festival was Aftersun, the debut feature from Scottish director Charlotte Wells that made its bow during International Critic’s Week. It helps that there is an enormous pedigree in front of and behind the camera. One of the main stars is Normal People’s Paul Mescal, fresh off starring alongside Emily Watson in the Irish drama God’s Creatures (which also premiered at Cannes). Meanwhile, the film counts amongst its producers Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski, the director and producer behind the phenomenal Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. So there was quite a lot of hype around it. Thankfully, Aftersun exceeds expectations as a heartbreaking, utterly flawless film about memory and depression.
Mescal plays Calum, the Scottish father of 11-year-old Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio). It’s the late 1990s, and the two are heading to a Turkish resort for their summer holidays. Their room may only have one bed and there may be unsightly construction around the resort, but that won’t stop them from trying to have the best vacation possible. However, at the same time, Calum is suffering from a bout of depression – something he tries to keep a secret from his daughter. Furthermore, at certain points, we cut to Sophie 20 years later (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall), who has found herself looking back on that vacation of years past. It is clearly still weighing on her mind, though it is unclear what has transpired in the meantime.
That mystery is something Wells keeps unsolved in Aftersun, letting the vacation and its quieter moments speak for themselves. The result is quietly beautiful and heartbreaking, starting with Paul Mescal’s engrossing performance as Calum. He has just entered his 30s and has some individual quirks like his Tai Chi and the expensive rug he buys. They would normally point to a mid-life crisis. But Wells makes it obvious there is something more going on beneath the surface. When Sophie gets a group to sing her father a birthday song, we dissolve to him sobbing on the bed. She asks about when he was 11, and he wants to turn the camera off. It is a pensive and forlorn turn from Mescal, who imbues a little darkness to the role. His distant looks away give the sense that something is emotionally crushing him.
At the other end, the young Frankie Corio gives a performance beyond her years as the inquisitive pre-teen Sophie. As Wells shows, this is the holiday where she is starting to come of age, whether it is her first holiday romance (with a similarly aged boy she meets at an arcade) or just playing pool with some older teenagers. Together, Mescal and Corio are a riveting father-daughter duo with bundles of charisma. Their relationship is relatable and natural, but it is also very amusing as the two tease each other. At times, it is like they are brother and sister – a few teenagers initially think that too.
With help from cinematographer Gregory Oke, Wells manages to make Aftersun a visually fresh film, from dissolves to the incorporation of Sophie and Calum’s MiniDV camcorder. The director also has a keen eye for blocking, carefully composing some shots so we have to rely on reflections and background figures. Furthermore, everything feels accurate to the late ‘90s, from the clothes and the aforementioned MiniDV footage right down to the music. Not only this is the second year in a row where a film at Cannes has featured the Macarena, but we also get period-specific needle-drops from British bands such as Steps and Chumbawamba.
And a scene featuring Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ is one of the most striking and performative any film has done in a while, piling on the emotion and sucking you into a trance. That is one of the brief instances we cut to adult Sophie, stuck in a flashing (and almost spectral) space with strobe lighting. She has her own life at this point – a young child and partner – but the memory of that holiday has been rekindled, and it evidently still hurts. Now she is surfing through these old videos, rewinding the tape. Is it the only souvenirs she has of that holiday, or the only ones left of her father?
Aftersun is a trip full of sun, sea and melancholy – a film about memories, how we remember them and how they become something different with new contexts. Charlotte Wells has termed the film “emotionally autobiographical” with the story inspired by her relationship with her late father. But she manages to stay away from overly heightened melodrama and creates a reflective experience. Poignant and anchored by Mescal and Corio’s terrific performances, Aftersun is an outstanding debut from Charlotte Wells that quickly confirms her directing talents. It is one of the best films at Cannes 2022, and it might end up being one of my favourite films of the year in general.
Aftersun premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival as part of the 61° Semaine de la Critique on May 21, 2022. The film was released theatrically in the US on October 21 and in the UK & Ireland on November 18, and will be available to watch on MUBI from January 6, 2023.