The Movie Waffler New to Curzon Home Cinema - AFTERSUN | The Movie Waffler

New to Curzon Home Cinema - AFTERSUN

Aftersun review
A woman recalls a childhood holiday she spent with her troubled father.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Charlotte Wells

Starring: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson Hall

aftersun poster

Writer/director Charlotte Wells' feature debut Aftersun is a nostalgia piece set in the late 1990s with a soundtrack of the pop hits of the era. But it's not cheaply nostalgic. It's not about our fond memories of cultural ephemera, but rather a more human variety of nostalgia, our remembrance of people, our regrets over how we interacted with those we loved, our questioning if we could have helped, if we could have been better children to our parents.

Digging out an old camcorder, thirtysomething Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) looks back at a summer holiday she spent as an 11-year-old (played by first time actress Frankie Corio) with her 30-year-old father Calum (Paul Mescal). On the cusp of puberty and the desire for independence that follows, it was probably the last time she would have wanted to spend a holiday with a parent, and while it's never made literal, it's heavy implied that this was the last time the father and daughter were together.

aftersun review

The film is interspersed with surreal dream sequences in which the adult Sophie is at a purgatorial, strobe-lit rave. As the light flashes she catches glimpses of her father in the distance, dancing with what seems like a forced exuberance. Tellingly, the father she sees in her dreams is still a young man.

The bulk of the movie simply lets us hang out with Sophie and Calum on that holiday, and it wouldn't take much editing to fool us into thinking this was just a regular fun time enjoyed by a man and his loving daughter. But Wells teases out details that all is not well with Calum. Some of these details are noticed by the young Sophie, even if she can't quite process them. She knows, for example, that her father struggles financially (they're staying in a crumbling hotel but spend their days pretending to be guests at a more upmarket hotel across the street, skipping out on bills), but she's too young to understand that when an adult struggles with money they struggle with life itself. She's mostly sympathetic to her father's plight, apologising when she loses an expensive scuba mask, but also unwittingly cruel, dismissing her father's suggestion of treating her to singing lessons. "Don’t promise things you can't pay for," she tells him with the coldness of a child who doesn't understand how easily grown-ups can be hurt by words.

Calum makes other promises that he probably can't keep, and they have nothing to do with money. At one point he reassures Sophie that as she grows older she can talk to him about anything. In the moment the two are more together than they've been at any point in the movie, but it's the film's saddest scene because we've figured out that he won’t be able to make good on his promise.

aftersun review

Half of the movie plays like a coming-of-age drama as we spend time with Sophie watching the world around her with the sort of curiosity we lose the bandwidth for once we reach adulthood. She has a very honestly awkward romance with an English boy her own age, detailed through a flirting procedure that involves the two playing an arcade game. Hanging out with a group of teens, she overhears sexually explicit conversations that she probably doesn't understand but really wishes she did. She enjoys drinking a little too much soda and eating a little too much ice cream.

While Sophie is having the summer of her life, her father is struggling to hold it together. There are scenes that focus on Calum in his daughter's absence, which prompts us to ask if they're imagined by the adult Sophie trying to figure out what her father was going through, or if they're truths presented by the all-seeing God of cinema. Early on we watch as Calum puts Sophie to bed and sneaks out onto the balcony for a smoke; he dances in a manner that comes off as unsettling, like an alien trying to imitate their idea of a human having a good time. At various points we see him slumped in chairs and against piles of rugs, as though he's desperately struggling to stay awake, or alive.

Seeing the young Mescal play a father is initially striking, as he's only just emerged from playing a schoolboy in his breakout role in the hit Irish TV show Normal People. While it's difficult to buy him as a 30-year-old, it's an inspired piece of casting as it adds to the sense that Calum has had the responsibility of taking care of another person sprung on him long before he's been able to take care of himself. Corio is a revelation, a proper child actor who can convince as a smart kid rather than the miniature adults so many of her peers come off as. Wells taps into how effective her young star's expressive eyes are, with Sophie spending a lot of time looking and observing without always taking things in.

Sophie is a smart kid, but the key word is "kid," and she doesn't quite have things sussed as much as she thinks. The glimpses we get of the adult Sophie similarly suggest that she's a smart adult who hasn't quite figured things out. We may even be led to a dark reading of the text that suggests she's destined to follow her father.

aftersun review

Mescal and Corio have such a wonderful and believable chemistry that it's easy to forget they're being filmed. But Aftersun is the work of a new master filmmaker, an instant expert in pure cinema. Her leads do a lot of talking, but they rarely say anything, as Wells tells her story through images. I can't think of many other movies in which the leading man's face is obscured as much as Mescal's is here. Calum often wanders out of shot, the camera refusing to follow him as though it knows he needs some alone time. In key moments the camera remains behind him as he lets out some unseen emotions. When we see his face in close-up it's often masquerading as a happy, together person for someone else's benefit, be it his daughter, other tourists or various hotel workers. Conversely, the camera is almost always on Sophie's face. The film knows who Sophie was at this point, but it can't quite nail down her father. Try to think of yourself and your parents when you were that age and you'll likely have a similar struggle.

In this age of films shoving their half-formed themes down our throats, of characters explicitly telling us what we're watching, Wells' debut is a refreshing, invigorating, unsettling and profoundly sad piece of filmmaking. Wells never has to tell us what we're watching because everything she shows us fills in another piece of a tragic jigsaw. Nothing is more satisfying than a movie that lets the audience do the thinking, one that allows us to bring part of ourselves to the story. For 95 minutes or so we're in a cheap Turkish resort with two people we grow to care for, but we're also back in our own childhoods, or maybe in our imagined futures or our all too real present. Regardless, we're all alive. If there's one over-arching message to take from Aftersun it's that you shouldn't be afraid to do something that makes you feel silly in the moment, because you may feel something a lot worse later.

 is on Curzon Home Cinema now.