Not much appears to happen in Aftersun, the first feature film of young Scottish director Charlotte Wells – unless you count the snooker games, scuba diving, mud baths, and other holiday activities. But don’t be fooled. Like the water polo players in one of the many watery scenes, all the grunt work takes place below the surface. All you have to do, as spectator, is sit back and look for the clues.
On the surface, the film is about a father (Paul Mescal) and his eleven-year-old daughter (Frankie Corio), who are holidaying at a sunny Turkish resort. Calum, amicably separated from Sophie’s mother, does everything he can, despite limited finances, to make this a special time for his adored child. Sophie, loving being with her father and awakened to new sensibilities – watching others pashing on – is having a ball.
And so begins the wait. What is going to happen in the idyllic natural surrounds of this slightly cringy resort? Wells has us on a string, masterfully eking out titbits that are sometimes central, sometimes irrelevant, to the story. There are hints that all will not be well.
Teasers abound. Sophie declares that her father has told ‘porky pies’ about having a scuba diving licence just before he plunges into the drink (will he drown?). She goes to play pool with a group of older, boozing teenagers (will she be raped?). Calum dives into the surf late at night. Only the empty settees on the beach are his witness (will he disappear forever?).
More serious than these tense-making teasers are the everyday events or offhand remarks that point to Calum’s growing struggle with depression. Sophie calls her mother and reports that Calum is ‘good but weird’. He has trouble staying awake as the holiday progresses, dozing in a shop on the luxurious Turkish rug he can ill afford to buy, or fixating on the hang-gliders who move freely in the sky above his troubled world. In one scene he stands on a balcony, arms raised in the air as if to take flight.
You get the feeling that almost everything in this film has meaning if you want to go there. The resort opens itself neatly to the use of song in the action so that, during the karaoke session, the lyrics of ‘Unchained Melody’ have particular significance, as does the final song by David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, ‘Under Pressure’. It finishes with the line ‘This is our last dance’ as father and daughter cut it up on the dance floor.
We can be sure, too, that the GAME OVER sign by the arcade cars, and the card game Trouble that Sophie plays with her father, are no coincidence in the hands of this detail-oriented director.
Aftersun has echoes of Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof (1991) in its quest to verify the truth through film and video. The film starts with Sophie using her hand-held video camera to launch the story of their holiday together, and the film is interspersed with such sequences, both protagonists at the controls. This offers their varied perspectives, Sophie the bright spark, the keen observer, the budding teenager, and Calum increasingly remote, his back to the camera, or barely there as he is obscured by the bathroom door.
These scenes prove vital to the grown-up Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), whom we see briefly towards the end of the film and in strobe-light sequences throughout, as she forensically studies them to better understand her father and his precarious health at the time. As with Hugo Weaving’s character in Proof, these records are the most reliable source.
Wells extends the intimacy of the hand-held camera to her own work, which, while not shaky, seeks to plunge us into the realm of the senses through cinematic art. Her award-winning short film Laps (2017) offered a taste of this with the rush of bubbling pool water that engulfs the screen. In Aftersun, we are regularly under water, on water, or watching the sky. Following Sophie’s admission to feeling low (‘It just feels like everything is sinking’), the audience is dropped into darkness for what seems like minutes. Wells pushes the envelope. How long can she keep us here without someone getting the giggles?
But no one gets the giggles in this superbly rendered film, where long silences simply complement long sequences of dwelling on one object, often in close-up. Who knew that watching a man sleeping in bed, hearing only his regular breathing and a dog barking in the distance, could be so riveting?
Interior and exterior scenes are constantly shuffled, keeping the film alive and reflecting the characters’ moods. The darker hotel room sequences, Calum’s shelter amid the turmoil, cut to the rich blues of the sea, the pool, the sky, and Sophie’s happiness. She says, ‘Sometimes it’s nice that we can all see the sky. We’re both underneath the same sky so we’re together.’
What’s admirable about this exciting new director is that she is averse to cliché, an attitude rare in Hollywood. For example, we just know that grumpy Tom Hanks in the recent A Man Called Otto (2022) is going to be a much happier chappy by the end of the show, that the mangy cat who hangs around his garage will soon be sharing his bed, that he will all but adopt his annoying but adorable Mexican neighbour when it’s a wrap.
Wells does the reverse. You just don’t know what’s going to happen next. What she has created is a subtle and extraordinarily intimate picture of a love between a parent and his child – the father who is preparing his daughter for the big bad world when he is no longer around; the daughter who rags her dad and then mothers him tenderly. There is nothing sinister in the mutual rubbing of sunscreen on each other’s backs, the hand holding, the face stroking. It’s just plain love.
And just plain love is painful when it’s taken away. The freeze frame of Sophie farewelling Calum at the airport once the holiday is over, and Calum’s manner of exiting, point to a seismic shift. It’s up to us now to fill in the blanks.
The performances of cheeky-smart Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal are pitch-perfect, and Mescal, who is currently enjoying a great success as Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire, has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Aftersun (Kismet) runs for 101 minutes and is on national release from 23 February 2023.