Contributor Amy Ellen Bogue reviews Aftersun, starring Paul Mescal and written and directed by Charlotte Wells.

 

Aftersun is a heartfelt story about growing up and looking back on your childhood. This is not your typical coming of age film, but an intricate narrative woven between the past and the present. The story centres on eleven year-old Sophie, on holiday with her fresh-faced father Callum, and adult Sophie, who is reflecting on her childhood memories. The gorgeous scenery of the Portuguese coast makes this film a pleasure to watch, but do not be fooled. As the story progresses something sinister appears to lurk beneath the surface of this family holiday. Written and directed by Charlotte Wells, Aftersun beautifully captures the very human desire to understand our parents, as well as have our parents understand us. While she has worked on several short films, this is Wells’s feature debut, but you would never guess as much from watching this expertly crafted exploration of a father and daughter learning to understand each other. 

I was lucky enough to attend the Irish debut of Aftersun in the ornate Everyman Theatre, as part of the Cork International Film Festival. The grandness of the theatre made the screening feel so much more important than a typical trip to the cinema. I felt I was experiencing something unique, though I was sharing it with a packed audience. The seats had sold out days before, and I knew that most of the people seated around me, myself included, had been drawn into the theatre by the charm and vulnerability of Maynooth born Paul Mescal. Rising to fame in 2020 with Normal People, Mescal is still relatively new to the big screen, but the Irish always turn up for their own. And so the Everyman Theatre was full to the brim of those young and old for Aftersun. In the run up to the screening, I found it impossible to escape the talk of the films’ brilliance. Aftersun was nominated for three awards at the Cannes Film Festival and was the winner of the French Touch Prize of the Jury, a new award launched this year, as part of critics week. The film also cleaned up at the British Independent Film Awards, winning Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Music Supervision.  

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Wells revealed that the inspiration for the film came to her while she was looking through old photographs and was struck by how young her father looked. Paul Mescal may seem far too young to play a father, but his performance shows a refined maturity. It is simultaneously brimming with joy, and heartbreakingly somber. While surrounded by the glistening ocean, Callum turns to Sophie and says “I want you to know you can talk to me about anything, as you get older you know”. The sincerity and the desperation in his voice brought me to tears. Wells has written a complex father figure, one who is terrified of the responsibility of parenthood, but who also wants to look after his daughter the best he can. If you have been a fan of Mescal so far, you will find delight in this performance, and if you haven’t been a fan, I believe this film will come as a pleasant surprise. However, in my opinion it is the 12 year-old Frankie Corio whose performance really steals the show. 

Frankie Corio plays the young Sophie, Callum’s daughter. Like Wells, this is also her feature debut, and what a debut it is. I felt a connection to Corio from the very beginning. As her father checks them into their hotel at the beginning of their holiday I felt I knew exactly how Sophie was feeling. The exhaustion and anticipation that comes at the beginning of a holiday, waiting in the lobby, the inevitability of there being a problem with the room. I saw the world through her eyes and recognised it as my own. It is a credit to Corio’s performance and to Wells as both a writer and director that this feeling permeated the entire film. As Sophie sits in a toilet cubicle, eagerly eavesdropping on a conversation between two teenage girls, I felt a warmth in my chest. I could not suppress my smile, I know this feeling of wanting to be older, of being a child and idolising teenagers. Hanging on to their every word just hoping to learn something about makeup, or sex, or boys. Aftersun tells the story of the desires of an 11 year-old girl, and these  are complex desires. It is a reminder of all that it is to be a child and want to be older. To go on a family holiday and taste freedom, to be allowed to watch the evening entertainment without supervision, and to meet a boy you will never see again and for a moment feel like you understand everything that adults talk about. 

As I left the Everyman Theatre that night, I spoke to a friend of mine about the film and she articulated exactly what I had been feeling. “I am Sophie,” she said. “Everything she was feeling, I felt exactly the same when I was that age.” For me, this is the magic of the film. I understand I may be biased. After all, I have never been a father like Callum, but I have been an eleven year old girl just like Sophie. While I overheard a few complaints about the pacing, I found the steady pace gave you time to sit with the characters and their feelings. Aftersun does not rush you along to any conclusion, but carries you gently, like a boat on the water, right up to the final moments when it drops you suddenly into the depths. While attending CIFF this year I viewed several films, but if I could only recommend one, without a doubt it would be Aftersun. I wait with baited breath to see what Charlotte Wells will do next. 

Aftersun is in theatres now.

Tags:
Previous Post

Things Left Unsaid

Next Post

Read: 00011