Tuesday, November 29, 2022

In Aftersun, Paul Mescal is achingly believable as the wrung-out working-class dad

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Charlotte Wells’ feature film debut, a heartbreaking portrait of a father and daughter, is an ode to memory that lovingly evokes the structure and details of a childhood vacation

All the rave reviews for Charlotte Wells’ debut feature film After sun might be misleading into assuming that this is a film that announces itself splashy to the world – or one that attempts to make a definitive statement about divorce or fatherhood or any of their themes. Nothing is further from the truth: After sun is a shimmering, elliptical, humane emotional tragedy – unspectacular, leisurely and all the more devastating for it.

Filtered by a beautiful bluish light that reflects the seascapes of a Turkish vacation package, Aftersun follows a father, Calum (Paul Mescal, so believable a working-class Scottish father circa early ’90s) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio, an impressively organic performance by a child actor) as they embark on a memorable journey together.

It was filmed in part through the contorted images of a 1990’s mini DVR to both evoke the time and indicate that this journey is actually being viewed in the context of the memory of a grown woman who was now the same age as her father.

Wells creates a shifting visual scrapbook of Sophie’s memories, evoking subtle lazy days by the pool, karaoke nights, and a chillingly contradictory series of conversations between the girl and her father about life, school, and divorce.

The film is at its best when it lovingly evokes the texture and detail of a childhood vacation; the ’90s dad shirts, Losing My Religion at karaoke, the cool beer-sipping older kids with their holiday romances and inappropriate jokes.

His approach to memory and image is often poignant and unique: a scene in which Calum and Sophie chat about what he remembers from his own 11th birthday while vaguely reflected on the hotel room TV is strikingly original framing.

However, this originality can sometimes drift into the opaque, with a borderline lack of action that the film, despite its relatively short running time, could not bear. Still, it’s a small complaint in a film that lands such tragic, touching grace notes without delving into the sad or the specific.

A beautiful ode to the fault lines of memory in family life and a single, heartbreaking portrait of a father and daughter’s premature separation on multiple levels, Aftersun is a truly outstanding feature debut.

Now in cinemas

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