Aftersun ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Spoiler warning

Now, what I would like to say about Charlotte Wells’ directorial debut Aftersun is that it instantly affected me with such emotion that I spent the next few days rethinking my relationship with my father. The truth is, while I did find it a beautifully sad and moving film, parts of the storyline went so far over my head that I had to visit forum boards to see if there was something I’d missed – plot twist: there definitely was.

Spanning just a few days, the film centers on a holiday between a Scottish father and daughter. Normal People star Paul Mescal is captivating in the leading role as the troubled Calum, but it’s actually his supporting actress who takes much of the limelight. Making her debut in front of the cameras, 12-year-old Frankie Corio shines as Mescal’s confused but ever-loving daughter Sophie.

Deciding to watch Aftersun in an arthouse cinema, it’s fair to say I was prepared for a film brimming with long action-less scenes used as a metaphor for one thing or another. While the movie certainly has its fair share of these, it never seems pretentious in its delivery or wasteful of the audience’s attention. Instead, it’s clear that Wells is portraying a moment in time and every conversation or lingering gaze seems to have an unspoken subtext.

Maybe it’s because I spent a large portion of the film trying to work out if Mescal is actually Scottish (he’s Irish), but two important plot points failed to register as I sat pretending to belong among the film students. After a little post-film research, it’s now evident that the movie takes place in the memory of an adult Sophie who, like her father on that holiday, is turning 31. It’s also the last time that she spent time with Calum, with it implied that he may have committed suicide not long after the events of the film.

While it might sound like some sort of excuse, an inability to make complete sense of the film immediately is actually the best complement of Wells’ work… hear me out here. Like Sophie, the audience also struggles to understand the real state of her father’s mental wellbeing. We are offered brief clues of his suicidal state – a strange dance on the balcony, a troubled tale of his childhood, and a late night venture into the sea – but his issues are certainly not out in the open.

What is obvious is that Calum is struggling with his emotions having recently divorced Sophie’s mother. The contrast between his depression and the mood of his daughter, who is just excited to spend time with her dad in Turkey, makes for some uncomfortable moments. The worst of these is Sophie’s desperately sad karaoke performance of REM’s Losing My Religion as Calum watches on, refusing to join.

The soundtrack also deserves a shoutout here. Wells makes use of powerful songs to emphasize the relationship between the two characters. The most impactful of these comes in the final sequence when David Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s version of Under Pressure rings out over clips of Sophie and Calum clinging to each other. “This is our last dance,” Bowie bellows as Sophie claws at the final memories of her father.

Regardless of the plot points I failed to grasp, Aftersun is a powerful watch. It’s a beautiful snapshot of memory, love, and loss, especially when you learn the complete context (even if it takes you a little longer than others). Hopefully it’s not Wells’ “last dance.”

Four stars.

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