Calum (Paul Mescal) brings his young daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) to Turkey for a sun holiday, just as she's about to become a teenager and he's about to turn thirty. Though he's estranged from Sophie's mother and lives apart from his daughter, Sophie reflects on their bond years later (Celia Rowlson-Hall) and grapples with the memories of her father and his private struggles...
Even though 'Normal People' was a critical success and caught the attention of a world fractured by endless churn from streaming and cinema, you'd wonder if the casting of Paul Mescal in it was just a fluke. Looking at 'Aftersun', it's clear that it wasn't. In just a short space of time, he's been able to amass a varied filmography with rich performances across it. 'Aftersun' is further proof that he's not only choosing his roles smartly but that he's playing to his strengths in all of them. The same arresting vulnerability and presence are on display here, but it's paired with soulful direction and writing from Charlotte Wells.
'Aftersun' is a movie that exists in transitory places. Mescal and newcomer Frankie Corio are either in a hotel lobby, getting off a tour bus, hanging around a pool, or trivially spending their loose hours on holiday together, unaware that the time they'll spend together will become a defining memory. 'Aftersun' grasps this so clearly; how the memories that form us are often those that we dismiss out of hand as being inconsequential. In Frankie Corio, we can see a young girl on the edge of becoming a woman, full of inquisitive glances and awkwardness. In Paul Mescal, you have an uncertain father trying to make sense of his somewhat aimless existence before he gets any older. The way the two performances move around each other, pulling and pushing, moving forward and stepping back, is deeply affecting.
For a debut film, Charlotte Wells understands perfectly how to needle out nameless feelings and emotions. The shyness and the intensity on the edge of adulthood and the deep melancholy of fading youth are all captured with total clarity in 'Aftersun'. It's the kind of stuff that directors and writers can spend years trying to tease out, yet Wells' script and direction grasp it fully in her first feature. Like a sun holiday, pacing and time isn't necessarily a concern with 'Aftersun'. It plays like memories, and at times, there's an interjection from either future Sophie's life as a grown woman and mother, or inside Calum's chaotic mind and life beyond their time together.
'Aftersun' can feel slight at times, or even perhaps like there's nothing much going on. Yet, when it's in those relatively inconsequential moments, it's building up a portrait of the characters, making them authentic and thus understandable and relatable. You see how minor moments can persist in someone's mind, following them throughout their life and becoming a core memory. That's what 'Aftersun' ultimately is - seeing inside memory, realising that there are blank spaces in what we know of those closest to us, and with the passage of time, allowing ourselves to understand them.