Aftersun Review: Charlotte Wells Quietly Breaks Hearts [TIFF]

A memory, even a very happy one, can be tinged with sadness after the fact — especially when viewed in a new light. This is the underlying spirit of "Aftersun," the debut feature film from Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells. The project is clearly a very personal one (the director said as much at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Aftersun" had its North American debut); the film drifts along at a dreamy, quiet pace, slowly unraveling its story about an unforgettable vacation, framed like a collection of memories held together by home movies, photographs, and souvenirs. 

The bulk of Wells' film focuses on young father Calum (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). Calum and Sophie's mother have long since broken up; he isn't in his daughter's life as much as he'd like to be, so he treats their alone time together vacationing at a Turkish resort as a precious — if fleeting — opportunity. Sophie is the typical, precocious kid on the cusp of puberty. She's mildly embarrassed by Calum, and starting to develop an interest in her sexuality. Mostly though, she's just happy to be there. She loves her dad.

All is not well at this Turkey resort, however. Calum is struggling; money is tight, he seems to have no clear direction in life, and he's drinking a lot. His usually happy demeanor is interrupted by bouts of sullenness. His wrist is in a cast, and he doesn't want to talk about how he hurt it. He can't sleep, and sometimes, when Sophie tries to connect with him, there's a distance reflected in his eyes — something deep down, calling him away. He shuts down when his daughter innocently asks questions like, "is this where you thought you'd be?" Seen through the eyes of his 11-year-old daughter, much of this isn't immediately obvious, but taken together, the collection of snapshots hints at tragedy.

Growing up

"Aftersun" is a slow-burn drama, relying on atmosphere, inference, and musical cues to develop its story. Much of the first act feels like watching vacation videos; there's a confidence in Wells filmmaking dictating the breezy, low-key pace. These early scenes establish a status quo that, on the surface, seems perfectly normal — transfixing the audience with easy relatability. This is an incredibly nuanced film that layers meaning steadily through subtle cues and juxtaposition, drawing the viewer in deeper and deeper with each seemingly innocuous episode. There's a quiet intensity that is barely detectible initially but steadily grows, eventually becoming overwhelming by the film's end. It's a challenging watch.

The ever-charming, sweet-faced Mescal fully embodies Calum, smoothly vacillating between the bubbly highs and heartbreaking lows of this depressed, single dad. There's loneliness inherent in the characterization, but also a lack of self-consciousness. Mescal goes all in on the role. He's committed to the tai chi, to the goofy dad dances, just as much as the despondent, dead-eyed stares, and racking sobs when he thinks no one is looking. His sadness is palpable. 

For her part, Corio is brilliant as Sophie. We get glimpses of her inner life with just a curious look or a shift in body posture. She and Mescal have such easy chemistry that it's easy to get lost in the narrative. The shaky, home-video footage further blurs these lines between reality and fiction. It's easy to get lost in these memories in the moment, just as the adult Sophie does.

"Aftersun" is a film you follow by feeling. The film's introspective approach works well for developing mood, and its reliance on implied events, rather than telling or otherwise revealing the history, invites the audience to fill these gaps, thereby forcing participation in the narrative construction. It's a powerful debut for Wells, and a pleasure to watch. 

/Film rating: 8 out of 10