Review: ‘Aftersun,’ one of the year’s great debut films, is a piercing father-daughter story

Man with a broken wrist with his arm around his daughter
Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in the movie “Aftersun.”

Something odd happened to me during a recent press screening of “Aftersun,” a beautifully sculpted and quietly shattering first feature from the Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells. While jotting down a few stray thoughts and details, I turned a page in my notebook and came across a drawing, something my 6-year-old daughter had doodled in bright-orange crayon. That wasn’t odd in and of itself; notebooks get passed around our house like potato-chip bags. But it was the first time the discovery of her handiwork, usually a cute and funny mid-screening distraction, had the effect of nudging me closer to the two characters in front of me — who, it may not surprise you to learn, are a girl and her father.

My apologies for the indulgent personal intro, something I’ve allowed myself only because the process of picking through one’s personal baggage — including the scribbled notes and stray memorabilia our loved ones leave for us — feels entirely germane to what Wells herself is doing. “Aftersun,” opening in theaters after an acclaimed festival run that began at Cannes this year, is what the director calls an “emotionally autobiographical” work, inspired by her recollections of a summer vacation she and her father took together in the ’90s. It’s a memory piece and, as such, a rumination on the ways in which memories can be at once indelible and imprecise, how they can torment us and fail us and still be the most precious things — maybe even the only things — we have left.

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From the opening moments, rendered in the grainy textures of camcorder footage, Wells makes explicit the patient, methodical act of sifting and sorting, of peering with intense concentration into the past. But then the past comes suddenly into focus with a shimmering, almost hyperreal clarity. The sun blazes down on the pools and deck chairs of a budget resort in Turkey, where 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her thirtysomething single dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), have come for a late-summer holiday. The hotel isn’t much — the tackiness of the lobby furniture, speaking of memories, will emblazon itself on your retina — but Sophie and Calum take most of their setbacks and letdowns in stride. They have the easy adaptability of two people who are pleasant and undemanding by nature and, it soon becomes clear, a little disoriented in each other’s company.

A man and a girl do a dance in a field with low mountains in the background
Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in the movie “Aftersun.”

Sophie lives with her mother (never seen) in Scotland; Calum makes his home in England. This Mediterranean getaway is thus a rare attempt to make up for lost time, though it also carries the unmistakable feel of a farewell. That impression may well be deceptive; the future of Sophie and Calum’s relationship, if they have one, is left unexplored. But something is clearly slipping away here, most obviously Sophie’s childhood, which you can all but see vanishing into the maw of early adolescence. It isn’t just the attention she attracts from boys at the hotel or the mix of fascination, envy and faint skepticism with which she regards the teenage couple making out poolside. It’s that her entire way of seeing her young, emotionally and geographically distant father until now — as an erratic but benevolent presence, more goofy older-brother figure than paternal authority — is about to change and possibly vanish.

Corio, an amazing discovery, somehow conveys these and countless other pinprick impressions without putting any of them into words. There’s a startling translucence to her performance, a willingness to let emotions bleed through gently and unforcedly, that matches the unhurried grace and circumspection of the filmmaking. Much of the story’s meaning can be divined simply from the interplay of Gregory Oke’s cinematography and Blair McClendon’s editing, the way the movie cuts between and around Calum and Sophie mid-conversation, insistently framing and reframing the scene in a way that suggests the workings of memory itself. At times the off-center compositions, resort setting and exquisitely detailed sound design — every splash of pool water and hiss of Turkish bath steam registers with crystal clarity — reminded me of Lucrecia Martel’s coming-of-age drama “The Holy Girl,” with its skill at conveying psychological interiority through atmosphere.

Like Martel, Wells knows the power of narrative elision: “Aftersun” may be a feature-length flashback, but apart from a few lyrical framing elements, its story unfolds in a spare, self-contained present tense. Apart from a friendly, mostly inaudible phone call from Calum to Sophie’s mom, we learn nothing of their long-ago relationship. And we glean only vague details about the recent accident that shattered Calum’s wrist, save for the sight of his forearm in a cast — an image of little dramatic significance but enormous metaphorical weight. A mantle of sadness hangs over Calum, even with the warmth of his sweet, boyish smile and the vigor coursing through his frame.

A girl in a yellow shirt smiles
Frankie Corio in the movie “Aftersun.”

The restrained but intense physicality of Mescal’s performance finds intermittent release when Calum practices his tai chi moves or, in a sudden surrender of inhibitions, goes wild on the dance floor. But the actor, as distinct here as he was in his recent supporting turns in “The Lost Daughter” and “God’s Creatures,” can hint at a deep, inchoate anguish with an image as simple as Calum having a restless smoke on the balcony while Sophie sleeps. For all his easygoing vibes, he also tends to shut down without warning, invariably when Sophie needs him most, and to feel a guilt afterward that’s all the more terrible because of her quickness to forgive. A scene in which Calum leaves Sophie to stumble her way through a solo karaoke performance seems to distill everything — adolescent awkwardness, parental abandonment, a chasm that seems to be widening in every direction.

The song Sophie’s singing in that moment is R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” one of several ’90s hits swirling through a movie with an unerring musical ear for its moment. (The moody Britpop of Blur’s “Tender” marks that moment as 1999; the Macarena craze is still in full swing.) But if Wells has assembled a note-perfect evocation of a highly specific chapter — the end of a millennium and possibly something else — it’s when she deliberately breaks with realism that this gently aching movie achieves an overwhelming emotional force.

At times she briefly flashes forward, showing us an older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) in her own early stages of parenthood. At times she shows us the accumulated relics of that long-ago holiday — an ornately woven rug, a faded Polaroid, a postcard message as achingly sincere as it is crushingly inadequate. And finally she gives us, in astonishing bursts of strobe-lit abstraction, the recurring image of Calum dancing in a faraway nightclub, lost in himself and perhaps lost to her forever. There’s mystery in this image, but also revelation and, astonishingly, recognition. As Wells has noted, “Aftersun” isn’t exactly her story, and glancing personal associations aside, it isn’t yours or mine either. And yet in these moments, for reasons as tough to articulate as they are to shake off, it feels ineffably, unmistakably ours.


Rated: R, for some language and brief sexual material

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 21 at AMC Burbank 16; AMC Century City 15