Writer/director Charlotte Wells’s debut feature arrives in UK cinemas, virtually creaking beneath the wait of a whole series of prestigious award nominations. It’s easy to see what influenced those who bestow such accolades. Aftersun is far more experimental than the average British independent; indeed, at times I’m put in mind of the work of American genius, Sean Baker, which is intended as a compliment. This sad, lyrical little film, set in the late 90s, follows the misadventures of a young father and his eleven-year-old daughter as they attempt to bond on a package holiday to Turkey.
Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) arrive at their hotel in the dead of night to a series of familiar disasters. Paul has asked for two beds in their room and there’s only one. Furthermore, in daylight, the resort resembles a building site with hammers and drills providing an intrusive soundtrack to those seeking a relaxing day’s sunbathing. But the two of them are here for a holiday and that’s exactly what they’re going to have.
As the languorous days unfold, it becomes apparent that not everything is quite as it should be. We learn early on that Paul is divorced from Sophie’s mother and that she has started a relationship with someone else. Paul seems sanguine about it, though on phone calls home, he still tells his ex-wife that he loves her. And there are some unanswered questions. Why does Paul have a plaster cast on his arm when he arrives? And why is he so vague when Sophie asks him how it happened?
The film unfolds like a series of half-remembered experiences, which makes perfect sense when we are offered scenes of a grown up Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), now a mother herself, looking back on the events of that trip and trying to piece the experience together. Cinematographer Gregory Oke makes everything look ephemeral, often choosing to depict scenes as reflections on a TV screen or in a hotel room mirror, sometimes offering us half-obscured images that don’t tell the whole story. Much of the action is captured as playbacks on Paul’s modest little video camera.
Mescal is terrific but it’s Corio who really knocks it out of the park, nailing the insecurity and apprehension of a young girl at a difficult age, just beginning to experience a growing interest in the teenage boys who hang about the resort. In the skies, a parade of colourful hang gliders often appear to be just out of Sophie’s reach, offering her some kind of escape. But Paul keeps telling her she’s too young to try them out…
This is a gorgeous film, sweetly sad and tinged with tragedy and is as ambitious a first feature as I’ve seen in a very long while. Wells surely has a bright future ahead of her but, for now, Aftersun is a pretty impressive start.