Parents and children can develop a sixth sense about each other—or, at very least, they can attune some of their five basic senses to each other’s wavelengths without even trying, and those sensitivities sometimes linger. Aftersun communicates its understanding of this connection right away. When Calum (Paul Mescal), a young father on vacation with his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Francesca Corio), pauses before leaving her alone for a moment, even though he’s out of her sight, she can hear his hesitation. She assures him it’s fine to leave her.
Calum’s uncertainty makes sense. Gradually, the movie reveals the basics of their relationship: Sophie’s parents are divorced, seemingly amicably, at least by this point. Sophie lives with her mother in Scotland. Calum lives in London, and doesn’t see her as often as either of them might like. Now they are on end-of-summer holiday in Turkey, at a resort hotel, though Calum can’t afford the all-inclusive passes that would get them unlimited food, drink or whatever else. The pair of them get along—though, as with the friendliness of the divorced co-parents, you get the sense that this may not have always been the case. The time, based on Sophie’s “No Fear” baseball cap and the later-period Britpop that appears on the diegetic soundtrack (“Tender” by Blur; “Road Rage” by Catatonia), the very late ’90s. Eventually, flashes of Sophie as an adult, played by Celia Rowlson-Hall, make it clear that she is remembering this trip, with the help of some home videos we see her taking at the time, and rewatching later.
I hesitate to reveal even these minor details, not because Aftersun is full of twists and turns, but because writer/director Charlotte Wells lets this memoir-like movie unfold with such impossible loveliness—and then, as it goes on, with something ineffably anxious beneath the surface. Calum sports a cast on his arm and spends a fair amount of time attempting to meditate. He’s sweet with Sophie, attentive without smothering her, yet clearly something nags at him.
Sophie notices this, but mostly doesn’t talk about it, and whatever she’s examining in retrospect has a weight that she doesn’t allow to burden her obligatory dad time. Also, she’s 11; there’s plenty else for her to notice, like the same-aged boy playing the motorcycle-racing video game next to her, or the way that young couples around her touch each other with brazen eagerness. At one point, Calum suggests that she go introduce herself to another family by the pool. “They’re like, kids,” she says, rejoining that he should go introduce himself to the parents. “They’re like, old,” he responds with a laugh. Maybe early parenthood exacerbates the role’s blessings and burdens in equal measure.
But there I am again, leeching bits of this movie’s loveliness by recounting it. Thankfully, the performances are recap-proof. Mescal and Corio are so utterly believable—in their joking, in their awkwardness, in their occasional impatience with each other—that Aftersun feels like a particularly vivid memory. It’s not quite the mock-doc that the early video footage seems to suggest; Wells juxtaposes Sophie’s lo-fi tapes with scenes shot on richly grainy film, and adds subtly surreal touches—tourists parachuting, or parasailing, or something, through the background of multiple shots—with enough consistency to make them seem at once casually realistic and slightly dreamlike. In the final stretch, the movie’s realism bends further, as Sophie’s memories and dreams contort around the more straightforward narrative of her story.
The movie is mostly from her point of view, but sometimes Wells follows Calum away from his daughter’s eyes. Are we seeing the truth of those moments, or Sophie’s attempt to reconstruct them years later? Aftersun doesn’t fuss around too much with underlining these ambiguities, though it does use some of its pop songs to comment directly on the action in ways that are at once rapturous and goofily literal, which may be the movie’s way of keeping in touch with its inner tween. Yet Sophie can’t live in that 11-year-old’s memories forever. We see her turning them over in her head, and the movie itself pulls off a devastating flip, from low-key, observant idyll to something profoundly moving about the closeness and distance that can develop in families, sometimes at the same time. In its gentle, modest way, Aftersun might well break your heart.
Director: Charlotte Wells
Writer: Charlotte Wells
Starring: Paul Mescal, Francesca Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall
Release Date: October 21, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.