Aftersun Review: Paul Mescal shines in Charlotte Wells’ stunning debut

Telluride: Paul Mescal takes his teenage daughter on an unforgettable Turkish vacation in a breathtaking film about our parents’ secrets.


A stunning debut that unfolds with the gradual poignancy of a Polaroid, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun isn’t just an honest film about how we remember the people we’ve lost – fragmented, elusive, nowhere and everywhere once – it is also a heartbreaking act to remember yourself. Here, in the time span of a quirky but delicate story that feels small enough to fit in an instant photograph (or the LCD screen of an old camcorder), Wells creates a film that gradually surpasses his frame. Culminating with the biggest Freddie Mercury pindrop this side of Wayne’s World, Aftersun has begun to tremble under the crushing weight of all that we cannot leave behind and may not have known to have at all take along.

When Sophie (notable newcomer Frankie Corio, as real as he can be) thinks of her father, she thinks of the Turkish vacation they took together in the late ’90s. That was the journey as she turned 11, and Calum — played by Normal People breakout Paul Mescal, who makes a premature leap into father roles with tremendous composure and a triggering sense of parental mystery — turned 32. Some kids in their rundown hotel assumed they were siblings and now they’re about the same age.

As adults, whom we only glimpse, Sophie revisits the MiniDV footage she and Calum captured that vacation, eagerly scanning the standard definition video for clues a child might have missed could. clues to what? It does not matter.

The eerily objective home videos and the semi-imaginary 35mm scenes that “Aftersun” wraps around them both suggest that Calum was struggling with a demon of one kind or another and that he was doing his best to ward it off Fight to hide from his daughter too rare time together, but Wells denied us the details. Like Sophie, all we can do is search for meaning in the rubble and hope to fill in the ghostly gaps between the man she knew and the man she lost.

After sun

“After Sun”

We tend to think of memories as crystallized moments in time, loosely strung together on the bars of a hanging chandelier somewhere deep in our mind. And yet personal experience tells us that our past consists of an infinite whirlpool of different sources – real and invented – each of them roughly stitched together with the same desperation that our sleeping brain could arrange a billion random neurons into a semi-coherent dream.

Some of these springs are soft like ghosts and also change shape in the shadows. Others are much heavier, as calm and tactile as a carpet on the floor. Both can be impressive, but neither is enough to tie all the dots; not when you’re trying to trace someone you loved by the vague silhouette they left behind.

All these years later — a lifetime since the tan she got in Turkey went back to freckled white — Sophie has only grown more desperate to see what the home videos of that trip will never show her. As if by osmosis, we sense her haunted by the feeling that an indescribable part of her will always remain unreachable, like the patch of skin between her bony, youthful shoulders where Calum had to apply sunscreen for her. We sense her rewatching the camcorder footage in the desperate, longing hope that maybe her father can show her in time to save her from it. And we sense that she does because she never saw him again.

Well’s ingenious construction allows Aftersun to unfold from a dual perspective that seems to filter through the eyes of an adult and a child at the same time. We look for discrepancies, scanning the screen for answers to questions we can’t even ask, until even the film’s most mundane images seem shrouded in mystery. Wells’ camera sometimes lingers on her characters in private moments when they assume no one can see them, as if the film itself spurs us to assume the worst. Gregory Oke’s fuzzy and tactile cinematography suggests a more sensitive read, its gossamer textures reminiscent of the work of Lance Acord in a film that often feels like a platonic riff on Lost in Translation.

Calum has a cast on his arm but claims he doesn’t remember how he got injured. He calls Sophie “Poppett” and speaks to his daughter with a wary intimacy that makes it hard to tell if he’s trying to protect her from the world or from himself. Calum smokes on the balcony of her hotel room after falling asleep, standing on the other side of a glass door. Sometimes he practices tai chi when he is alone in the room with his body hidden from the camera by a bathroom wall. At one point we see him spit at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Did he do that when Sophie was making silly little videos with her dad’s camera?

Sometimes Sophie wears a “NO FEAR” hat, just one of the many impeccable historical details in a film that hints at its timing so precisely that it seems to be set at the precise moment that “Macarena” is taken from “best part of ‘ swept over the party’ to ‘reluctant commitment’ (a chilling karaoke scene in the film’s second half is set to a timely track too perfect to spoil). Sophie plays with a group of older kids she meets poolside and clearly enjoys the exciting autonomy of doing stuff for older kids, but she’s never the least bit disinterested in hanging out with her dad.

There’s so much about Calum that she’s dying to understand without asking, so we hang on to each of his words in the same way. We overhear his phone call with Sophie’s mom to find out they’re broken up, but sweet understanding, we overhear him talking (flirting?) with a dive master, and we dissect the tone of his voice as he talks about “The pretty teacher” at Sophie’s school to see if that sounds honest.

Sophie buckles in the rare moments when Calum reveals herself to her, filing away valuable information for later this week, unaware that she’ll be holding on to it for decades to come. A painful confession of forgotten birthdays pays multiple dividends, leading to an indelible fade that reveals this immensely powerful film creeping up on you before everyone’s eyes.

Some of that power can be attributed to the feat of how Wells holds her story together – “Aftersun” reaches a lofty ending that exists in a liminal realm between memory and imagination that each viewer must find for themselves – but none of this would be possible without that real and immediate sense of intimacy that she creates between her two protagonists. Hardly a single moment feels didactic or instructive or reverse engineered from the film Sophie might someday want to make about this journey; Even after watching “Aftersun” four times, I’m still not sure if time will help Sophie better understand who her father was, or if her vacation was the last age they could possibly be so honest with each other could have been as they were.

Wells’ film is able to follow his characters through the strobe lights of lost time because Mescal and Corio make it so tempting for us to fill in their performances for them – to fill in the gaps with the same urgency that we fill in ours want to close own . Few films have ever ended with a more alluring invitation to do the impossible, but “Aftersun” is so memorable for the haunting beauty it finds in the futile attempt.

I often think of the wonderful scene where Sophie tries to interview Calum on camera, only for her father to shut up and make her shut down. “Well,” she says, “I’ll just record it with my little mind camera.” She doesn’t know it at this point, but it’s a lens she’ll be looking through for the rest of her life; This is where we look for the people we love when we can’t find them anywhere else.

Class: A

Aftersun premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and was reviewed at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. A24 will release it in theaters on Friday October 21st.

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Lindsay Lowe

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