Aftersun promises to make you look back on photographs from family holidays and wonder if they were as happy as you remember them.
Director Charlotte Wells’ feature debut is a beautiful sun-soaked picture of a child yearning to grow up and a parent believing he is incapable of it.
Painfully Nostalgic, Aftersun centres on Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) as she looks back on a holiday she shared with her divorcee-dad, Calum (Normal people star Paul Mescal).
The film jumps between the adult Sophie reckoning with the past and eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) unaware of what’s to come.
After winning the French Touch jury prize at Cannes Critic’s week, Charlotte Wells brings her directorial debut to her hometown for Edinburgh International Film Festival’s (EIFF) opening gala.
Paul Mescal stars in the first father role of his career. Audiences may find it odd to see the 26-year-old actor in this way, but he is completely believable.
He is a scared father, hiding his declining mental health from everyone around him, including us.
Mescal portrays Calum’s loneliness without drama or hysterics. Instead, it is a slow wave threatening to consume him.
Frankie Corio as Sophie is a delight the watch. She balances Mescal’s quiet contemplations with witty questions and youthful energy, but when the story calls for it she is not afraid to get introspective.
Together they create a sweet father-daughter relationship that works because Mescal’s character protects his child from his harsh reality.
The two are mirror images of each other, the young Sophie talks openly about feelings of depression without really knowing what she is saying. Yet, Calum feels the full effects without knowing how to talk about it.
Even the audience must reconcile never really knowing Calum. We are offered only flashes of insight in faint reflections or from grainy video recordings.
There are times when Aftersun revels in opposing ideas. One of the core messages in Aftersun is that happy memories can quickly become heart-breaking with the knowledge of time.
At the same time, joyous scenes of a sweet summer holiday are followed quickly by moments of absolute despair or confusing emotions.
Cinematographer, Gregory Oke, cleverly layers his shots to show the adult world that permeates Sophie’s childhood. We see Calum dancing alone, out of focus, in the background as Sophie sleeps soundly in the foreground.
Scenes that are soaked in mid-90s colour, give the past a warm glow. While the present takes on a much darker hue.
But, the brilliance of Wells’ direction is that these small moments of character building are crucial to understanding Calum.
Forgotten drunken injuries, self-help meditation books and toothpaste stains on mirrors allude to a man trying to cope and failing.
However, even the sequence in which Wells chooses to tell her story has significance. There are scenes that are replayed for us that feel like someone returning to painful memories again and again.
It isn’t until the final dizzying minutes that the full force of the film is felt. There you’ll see the past and present fighting it out to gain the privilege of telling this father-daughter story.
Charlotte Wells has created a heart-wrenching elegy for seeing your parent as a flawed human for the first time.
It will simultaneously make you wish for times past and grieve what could have been.
Aftersun starring Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio is out in cinemas on November 18th 2022.
Book tickets here for EIFF until August 20th
Featured Image Credit: Charades