Aftersun – Review

Aftersun Cinema viewers of a certain age will recall all too well the sights, sounds and smells of a mid-1990s package holiday. The FILA trackies, the lukewarm beers, the dodgy looking flumes, the beige and blue quilted bedspreads and the ubiquitousness of the Macarena. It evokes a very specific type of memory – buffet breakfasts, days whiled away by the pool and the inevitable heat-related falling out or two.

Writer / director Charlotte Wells manages to capture all of this perfectly in her feature-length debut, Aftersun. It stars Paul Mescal as Calum, who is taking his daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a summer holiday to Turkey. It’s clear from their hesitancy that they perhaps haven’t seen each other in a while. There’s a slight air of desperation between the two – both so utterly keen that each other has a good time. Alternating between ‘regular’ film and home movie style interludes, we discover more about their relationship and Calum’s fragile state of mind.

In such a deeply personal and intensely intimate kind of film – it is most often only Calum and Sophie on screen – you rely on the chemistry and performance of your leads. Mescal and Corio will have you transfixed. Both are so utterly compelling in their depictions that you immediately become emotionally invested in this holiday. You need it to work out as much as they do.

There are quite often prolonged periods of silence whilst Sophie observes the holiday-soaked happiness of those around her. Despite her holiday getting off to a shaky start – there is construction at the hotel next door and a mix up with the room – she throws herself into time spent with her dad, even if it’s just watching him footer. Corio captures her character perfectly – she is not quite on the cusp of adolescence but is more than aware of the complexities of adulthood. “Stop promising to buy me stuff you can’t afford,” she chides her father. She is curious but perhaps all too likely to be disappointed by the answers she might get.

Mescal offers us small ‘blink at you’ll miss it’ glimpses into Calum’s mental state, largely through intense close ups and words on the brink of leaving his lips. We see him staring off into the horizon, disassociating completely from his surroundings, or utterly breaking down, under the safety of his blanket. “I can’t see myself at forty, to be honest. I’m surprised I made it to thirty,” he tells a diving instructor. He is a man desperately trying to love his daughter – and perhaps his life. He deems himself unworthy of having birthday wishes sung to him. He seems torn between how young he is to be a father to an eleven year old and how tired and weary he feels. He is utterly fantastic throughout and has a very good go at an East Coast Scottish accent. If you’re unaware of the Mescal hype on social media, this devastatingly honest performance is a good place to start.

Aftersun Aftersun feels like something of a testament to memory. Certainly, the era classic soundtrack – coupled with words like “nipping” and the overall styling of the piece – will take viewers back to a particular moment in time. But it’s more than that. It’s about how we perceive our memories when we try to recall them. It’s only when Calum is alone on screen that his true feelings are revealed. When we see him with Sophie – and therefore, are seeing things from her perspective – we see a different version of him. Wells really cleverly alludes to the fact that Sophie perhaps didn’t recognise symptoms of depression within her father.

The ambiguous ending has become a much-debated piece of cinema. As Calum sends Sophie on her flight home to Edinburgh, we are left with him in the airport corridor. He films her right up until she disappears from sight. Then he, too, leaves. We are left in an empty grey corridor with too-bright strip lighting. It feels stark; bleak, even. Is Wells suggesting that Calum is truly gone and has died by suicide? Or is this just the end of his relationship with his daughter? It’s a distressing note to end on, either way; the lazy summer days by the pool are also a mere memory now.

Charlotte Wells delivers a striking debut with Aftersun, her tremendous writing and direction are convincingly brought to life by Mescal and Corio. Her exploration of complex parent / child relationships and mental health is bound to stay with you – her memories intertwining with your own.

Aftersun is now streaming on MUBI UK.

Mary Munoz
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