“But most praise should go to Wells, who calmly lets the film unfold itself, confident in the patience and intelligence of her audience to grow with the central relationship until the cracks start to appear.”
“This is our last dance, this is our last dance.” As David Bowie’s voice blasts through the speakers and the full drama of Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun hits you, it’s hard to keep a dry eye. What has developed in the 90-odd minutes before is a tender and loving father-daughter relationship that you feel at some point will be shattered. How or why, we are not sure, but a deep sense of depression creeps into the performance of Paul Mescal as the male lead character. Wells leaves the questions open to the imagination, but the clear implication that these two loving characters will be torn apart after the credits roll is quietly devastating. Aftersun is a confident debut that will hopefully leave the Croisette as one of the most buzzed-about titles, because it fully deserves its place in the (after)sun.
Calum (Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Francesca Corio) are enjoying a summer vacation in Turkey. Divorced, Calum has Sophie for the holidays and sets out to make the most of his time with his daughter. We are in the ’90s, and he has a brand new DV camera even if he can’t really afford it, but it awakens the filmmaker in Sophie, who records tidbits of their time together doing your typical holiday things: lounging on the beach, doing a day excursion, the ever-present animation team. Sophie is a bright kid who can sometimes, out of the blue, surprise you with a deep thought. A pre-teen in that phase where boys suddenly become interesting, where a sip of beer is an adventure, and where anyone even only a year younger is a child. Adolescence is looming. Calum notices this too, and emphatically tells her she can always talk to him, as all dads with daughters that age do. Every interaction between the two builds the idea that he is a wonderful dad. But gradually a sense of something being wrong creeps in.
Wells slowly lets this idea develop, although there are hints strewn around. Why is Calum so into Tai Chi, and why has he brought all those self-help books? Shots of paragliders in a blue sky, shots of a faded Calum reflected in the hotel room television set or a poolside glass table. Small irritations creep in, and when Calum doesn’t want to join Sophie in a karaoke duet of R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion‘ (the title’s meaning itself a hint at Calum’s state of mind) the two get separated for a night. Sophie enjoys her first kiss, while Calum wanders off alone. While not explicitly stated, he seems to be battling depression. We see glimpses of an older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) on a dance floor throughout, the strobing light signaling a disturbed mind. In later instances we see Calum join her, the dad who embarrassed younger Sophie with his clumsy dance moves. A brief glimpse of the older Sophie getting out of bed, her girlfriend making a futile attempt at support, is reminiscent of Sean Penn in The Tree of Life waking up on the anniversary of his brother’s death, and the scene here in Aftersun imprints a similar sadness.
Mescal impresses as the loving, increasingly melancholic dad, but it is the young Corio who steals the show. Her prepubescent Sophie is perfectly balanced on the brink of a new phase in her life, a phase of slightly dangerous yet exciting temptations, and Corio perfectly captures that moment in time. But most praise should go to Wells, who calmly lets the film unfold itself, confident in the patience and intelligence of her audience to grow with the central relationship until the cracks start to appear. Mescal’s exit in the film’s final shot, a touch of magical realism, will be hard to top by any film in this year’s festival, and Aftersun announces Wells as one of those directors who leaves you longing for more.