Charlotte Wells’ feature directorial debut ‘Aftersun’ opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival this week, and it is one of the best opening night films in recent memory. A simple story of a dad and his daughter spending some time together on a package holiday to Turkey in the late 90s, but played out with such elegance, and narrative style it takes your breath away.
The film begins at the end, with grainy DV camera footage of 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) saying bye to her dad Calum (Paul Mescal) at the airport departure gate, after spending the week together on holiday. Grown up Sophie in the present day is revisiting this footage, for what reason we do not know, but looking back on that time with adult eyes, her memories of this week with her dad might not be as happy as she remembers.
Even through the specificity of this story, there is something universal about those 90s resort holidays that will resonate with a lot of people. Wells perfectly evokes that heady mix of the crap and the exotic that made those package holidays so special. The airport transfers in the middle of the night. Playing pool at the local bar. Kids getting bollocked by their parents. The dreadful hotel entertainment. Fanta Lemon!
Calum is a young dad. At one point another holidaymaker mistakes him and Sophie for brother and sister rather than father and daughter. He’s stayed on good terms with her mum, but he’s clearly hurt that it didn’t work out. He’s a good dad, and doing his best, but in the quiet moments we start to get hints of his loneliness and the fragility of his mental health. Wells doesn’t feel the need to explicitly comment on what Calum is going though, instead just revealing a steady build-up of moments and images that we can recognise as something worrying.
Adult Sophie looking back can now recognise these moments too, but at the time was blissfully unaware. To young Sophie, he is just her embarrassing dad, who dances funny, and does Tai-Chi. They get on with their holiday, hanging out by the pool and going on day trips. They have fun together, even as we increasingly become aware that Calum is hiding his sadness and despair from her.
Wells captures everything in a dreamy, poetic style, allowing scenes to breathe, often letting them run much longer than where you would expect the cut to happen. Leaving room for interpretation. She intercuts all of this with the DV camera footage that Sophie is filming throughout the holiday, almost like her own little travel blog meets talkshow. Then in the present day, in the film’s most curious and ambiguous element, Sophie is searching for her dad in what appears to be a nightclub. How this all comes together in the film’s final scenes is truly extraordinary.
Speaking of extraordinary, the performances of Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio are nothing short of sensational. In her first ever acting role, Corio is an absolute revelation. So naturalistic and charismatic, and her chemistry with Mescal is incredible. What he is doing in this role however is on another level, and just further showcases him as one of the most vital young talents around.
‘Aftersun’ is a phenomenal achievement. A glorious and dizzying film about memory and loss, and how the things we replay in our mind change meaning as we get older, and that painful moment when we see our parents as humans for the very first time. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I first saw it. I can’t wait to see it again, and I can’t wait to see what Charlotte Wells does next.