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Charlotte Wells’ sharp and tender Aftersun is the rare father-and-child drama that leaves you wondering who the dad will grow up to be. His name is Calum, and he’s brought to vivid, mysterious life by Paul Mescal. In one of his first big-screen lead roles (another, in God’s Creatures, is also premiering at Cannes), he inhabits the part with a compelling tension between awkward and assured, recalling his charismatic breakout performance in Normal People, and lending his work here a similar mix of athletic physicality, genial openness and emotional camouflage. Here, though, at a distinct remove from the intensity of teen romance, emotions aren’t expressed directly, let alone pored over. The very subject of Wells’ feature is the gap between the sensory detail of a sun-drenched vacation and the unknowable interior lives of the characters.
The result is a spellbinding duet by Mescal and Frankie Corio, a real discovery as Sophie, a precocious and watchful daughter with a valentine of a face. The story that unfolds is her memory, 20 years on, of the summer trip she took with Calum to a Turkish seaside resort, when she was 11 and he on the cusp of 31. Sophie is glimpsed in brief flashes as an adult (Celia Rowlson-Hall), her present-day narrative reduced to spiky slivers. It might be her own parenthood (a baby’s cries are heard) that has sparked memories of the ’90s excursion — or it might be something more precise, something we’ll never know. By withholding conventional narrative explanations, writer-director Wells heightens the immediacy of the movie, just as holiday itineraries and accommodations hasten an unaccustomed intimacy.
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But there’s also the powerful sense of a psychological remove, of intermediary layers at work in this stripped-down telling. Using mini-DV tech that was of-the-moment at the time, Calum and Sophie record their adventure. The click and whir of the camera are the first notes in Jovan Ajder’s evocative sound design. DP Gregory Oke captures the look of home video footage — the shifting focus, the non-pro lighting, the jolting angles — as well as the beauty of the coastal setting, with its caressing sea. He and Wells take the visuals to an expressionistic level too, in grown-up Sophie’s ultra-concise appearances and in a sequence that spins shadows, pixels and ghosts through a vertigo of yearning: a stuttering dance of memory.
The chief director of the holiday recordings, Sophie plays to the camera from both sides. Because she and Calum don’t live together — he moved to England from Edinburgh, where she lives with her mother — the importance of their time together is magnified, and her awareness of this flickers through Corio’s portrayal. As the film opens, Sophie is attempting to conduct a video interview with her dad, a scene Wells will return to halfway through the feature, revealing the fallout of a question that might feel like smart fun to an 11-year-old but is all too loaded for someone who’s not feeling great about his upcoming birthday. A less-charged mealtime chat between Calum and the ever-inquisitive Sophie hints that he’s on pause with romantic relationships and vaguely sorting out his larger goals, having shelved one entrepreneurial venture for another, its details undisclosed.
Calum, who’s sometimes mistaken for Sophie’s brother, can be a big kid, playful and goofy. He’s also thoughtful and serious and, one potentially devastating lapse notwithstanding, an attentive and protective parent. His devotion to tai chi and his books on meditation suggest someone curious about the world and working to know himself better. Still, when Sophie hits a nerve, whether inadvertently or with a pointed lack of kindness, he’s likely to push the moment away. In one of the instances when he doesn’t, their conversation is viewed indirectly, father and daughter seen via reflections in their hotel room’s TV screen and mirror, together but not.
With her confidence and her insights, Sophie often takes her father by surprise. Wells is interested in what’s incisively tween about the character — it’s an age of curiosity, endlessly fascinated. Rhapsodizing about the underwater creatures she encounters during a dive, Sophie is gee-whiz giddy. But there’s something more mature than childish about the way she gazes with longing at the paragliders dotting the sky, partaking in a sport she’s too young to tackle.
At the resort hotel where she and her father while away the poolside hours and where most of the guests seem to be Brits, Calum urges her to introduce herself to a girl a few years her junior. But Sophie is more drawn to the teenagers hanging out, shooting pool with them and eavesdropping on two girls talking about sex. She enjoys being chatted up by a fellow arcade-game enthusiast (Brooklyn Toulson), a boy about her age whose self-possession matches hers (and whose accent proves a bit thicker). Still, even as they play at more grown-up parts, they’re undeniably kids, looking across a divide at the land of teendom.
There’s something in-between about Calum too. He might embrace the opportunity to lob bread-basket rolls at a lousy dinner-show act, but he’s also a man of unspoken troubles — one who can’t, or won’t, specify how he wound up with a cast on his arm. And one whose comment that he never felt at home in Edinburgh suggests a whole life-to-be in the making, turning toward a new sun. Late at night, when he steps onto the balcony for a smoke, the film views him through the glass door, as does his daughter, and all sound drops away, both Ajder’s astute mix of nature and machinery and the minimalist ache of composer Oliver Coates’s score. Calum is apart, unheard, facing away and yet still somehow masked.
It isn’t what Calum and Sophie say to each other that makes Wells’ first feature indelible, but the ways they listen and how they’re mutually attuned. Whether through a transparent partition in darkness or by his side in bright daylight, Sophie watches her father like a stealth agent trying to crack a conundrum. When she takes a karaoke gambit with a certain R.E.M. hit, it’s a grand gesture; she’s the encouraging parent, trying to buoy the sinking Calum, and he’s the pouting child. Her rendition is magnificently flat, but like the paragliders she studies with envy, it soars. Later, when she finds another way to celebrate Calum with music, Mescal’s finely calibrated reaction leaves us hoping that whatever eventually keeps the 31-year-old Sophie up at night, thinking of her father, all those seasons earlier he learned to accept the gift.
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