A tender self-portrait, ‘Aftersun’ lets Charlotte Wells fictionalize her own life and her relationship with her complicated father
“When you were 11, what did you think you’d be doing now?”
This is what 11-year-old Sophie asks 31-year-old father Calum in the first line of Aftersun, the debut feature from Charlotte Wells that premiered this month at the New York Film Festival before opening in theaters on October 21st. This introspective question asked by a pre-teen forces a reckoning for Calum, one that causes both the father and the daughter to question their relationships with each other and the world around them.
Writer and director Wells took inspiration from her real life and her childhood with a young and often absent father to create Aftersun, a film about the subjective views of childhood and the lies that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Featuring a combination of film and videotape footage shot by Sophie and Calum, this 90s-set movie follows a father and daughter on vacation to Turkey. Sophie lives with her mother most of the year, but Calum gets to take her on a trip the week before school starts back up. Calum, played by the absolutely marvelous Paul Mescal, tries to hold himself together for the sake of Sophie, but the cracks show. Calum isn’t suited to fatherhood, and Sophie is beginning to discover that herself.
Mescal, 26, is best known for his appearance in the show Normal People. Yet here we’re gifted with a performance from the Irish actor that feels akin to early Al Pacino. There is a simmering tension, a never-ending pain in Calum’s eyes. Mescal plays the 31-year-old with a sense of wisdom about just how unprepared he is to be a father to Sophie. Meanwhile, newcomer Frankie Corio plays Sophie with optimism about the world and her father. Corio plays Sophie as a tween-going-on-30, too old for her fellow pre-teens but too young for her father’s crowd. Instead, she finds herself spending time at the hotel with some older teenagers, a choice that reverberates throughout the father-daughter vacation.
The film is very light on plot, but features unforgettable moments throughout that show the distance between Sophie and Calum, between Calum and the world, and between Sophie and her peers. Sophie is too mature, while Calum is too immature. They talk to each other with a frankness that shocks, but they also capture each other on a camcorder in sequences that reflect how each really sees the other. The videotape sequences of the film, camera controlled by Corio or Mescal, have such a personality to them. The actors each bring their own filmmaking style, and Wells lets them each run with their own cinematic languages. It’s almost experimental in form.
Aftersun is aided by a wonderful soundtrack with needle drops including Bowie and R.E.M., and the film clips along despite the slightly-too-long runtime. Yet the real standout is Charlotte Wells, a filmmaker I know I will want to see more of in the future. She grants Mescal and Corio the ability to take the real story that inspired Wells and push it to the breaking point. Every detail is so lived-in, from the books that Sophie is reading on the beach to the Tai Chi that Calum practices daily by the pool to center himself.
Aftersun doesn’t hold your hand. You’re asked to draw conclusions about what is happening outside of what we see. We hear that Sophie and her mom have been arguing, and we see that Calum is potentially struggling with addiction. The movie is filled with many clues and few answers. It’s the rare movie that actually trusts its audience to make their own decisions. In an ideal world, both Charlotte Wells and Paul Mescal would be greeted with awards and critical adoration in the coming months. A movie this beautiful deserves an audience, and hopefully, you and many others can see it in theaters this autumn.