Equal parts delightful and torturous: a review of Aftersun

Charlotte Wells’ directorial debut Aftersun is an ode to unconditional familial love and all of the heartache it brings. Of all the praise that could be afforded to Wells, I am compelled to first commend her on the film’s title. Watching protagonist Sophie reassessing a childhood holiday with her troubled father feels akin to the sunburn revealed by aftersun after a carefree day at the beach. It is bittersweet, nostalgic, and painful all at the same time.

Aftersun is not a particularly plot-driven film, largely compiled of shots of the Turkish tourist-scape and the nostalgia of the all-inclusive. However, it is this emphasis on aesthetic and emotion, rather than narrative story-telling, that makes Aftersun such a triumph. Wells has revived the place of cinema as the ‘septième art’, using it as a vehicle to explore the intimacies of a loving but complicated father-daughter relationship.

The competing perspectives of both younger and older Sophie create a compelling portrayal of childhood naivete, and the painful coming-of-age realisations that force us to see our parents’ flaws. The resulting narrative is reminiscent of Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, standing as a testimony to Wells’ creative use of cinema to capture emotions normally monopolised by the written word.

This ambitious film is elevated by the performance of Frankie Corio. Her depiction of childish excitability and emerging self-consciousness in the face of older teens in their holiday resort endears her to the audience. Her improvisation of the line “I’m going to record it in my mind-camera” was a brilliant reflection of an eagerness to please her dad and keep his attention. As my friend put it, “she’s definitely been 11 before.”

A personal stand-out scene was Sophie’s karaoke performance of REM’s Losing My Religion. The choice of song, one of my dad’s favourites, felt especially poignant in a film that puts such relationships under a microscope. Corio’s awkward mannerisms capture the beginning-of-the-end of childhood innocence, and a slow introduction to teenaged embarrassment. This likely was aided by Corio’s own discomfort with singing, stating that “I hated it, I hated every moment.” The scene also precipitates one of the most striking moments of the film, when Sophie is locked out of their hotel room after a depressive drinking spiral leaves father Calum (Paul Mescal) unconscious and naked in their bed. When Sophie simply covers her dad in a sheet and dismisses it the next day as “no big deal”, the audience is made painfully aware that this is not a new occurrence.

Mescal’s Oscar-nominated performance is equal parts delightful and torturous. His affection for both Calum and Sophie, and Frankie, is apparent both on and offscreen. He has described being “drawn to the script” because of its portrayal of a single-parent relationship that is centred around love.

A magical combination of great acting, visually arresting shots and poetic explorations of depression, love and innocence has made Aftersun a universally acclaimed debut. Following the film’s 121 award nominations, all eyes are on Wells to see what she creates next.

Aftersun is now streaming on MUBI.