18 Nov 22
Few young actors these days are launched into stardom quite as rapidly as irish newcomer paul mescal has been. His turn as the brooding, sensitive Connell in BBC Three's adaptation of the Sally Rooney novel Normal People had viewers immediately compelled, and he has steadily been accruing roles in exciting new projects ever since, from Maggie Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter to the forthcoming God's Creatures.
As young father Calum in Aftersun, one of the must-see British films of the year, he achieves some of his most achingly beautiful work to date. On a resort holiday in Turkey during the 1990s, Calum looks after his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). She's on the cusp of adolescence, curious about boys and eager to enact her independence. He's a loving dad but there's a distance to him that Sophie can't quite understand. He sneaks cigarettes on the balcony and practises tai chi as a means of finding contemplative time for himself, away from a loud and daunting world.
Aftersun unfolds like the most tender of memories, drifting through the haze of childhood happiness and uncertainty that occupies Sophie's mind. Through this haze she tries to reach her father, who seems to be slipping further from her grasp into his own deep melancholy. This is the debut feature of Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells and her vision of gentle nostalgia and navigation of the bonds between fathers and daughters plays out masterfully, blended through home movie-style shots and dream sequences that capture the beauty of past, present and future woven together.
Their holiday progresses, time marked by pints of lager drunk by Calum and volumes of sunscreen applied to Sophie's bare shoulders. There is the inevitable boredom of the same sunny days stretching out before her and the moments of excitement that grow to feel monumental – making a new friend on the arcade motorbike or tagging along with older kids as they either prank or snog one another. In examining Calum and Sophie's complex relationship and the latter's formative experiences, Aftersun becomes a richly layered film that explores what it means to truly know someone, and yourself, at different stages of your life, to reflect on time spent together with a new or changed perspective. It's also a tender coming-of-age story, capturing Sophie's burgeoning confidence in herself with a kindness and intimacy that resonates deeply. Corio is a star in her own right, too, affecting in her portrayal of both her character's youthful self-consciousness and childhood joy.
With its '90s setting comes '90s music and costuming, two of the film's most evocative elements and a key part of what makes Aftersun feel so softly familiar. In its use of popular songs to soundtrack the emotion of Sophie's pre-teen experiences while Calum's mysterious behaviour worsens, the film deftly plays with a universal sense of memory alongside its exploration of the poignant details of Sophie's own.
What Wells has crafted in Aftersun feels rare: a film that captures a time and place so intimately yet universally, a story of familial love so fragile yet headstrong. It's undeniably one of the must-see films of the year and has already wowed critics at the Edinburgh and London film festivals, as well as winning the French Touch Jury Prize at the Cannes Critics Week. It's a work that looks set to propel the careers of its stars both in front of and behind the camera even further. Caitlin Quinlan
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