In the midst of flailing bodies on a strobe-lit dance floor, Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) reflects on a summer vacation with her father (Paul Mescal) that took place years earlier. Lucky for us, her remembrances aren’t infused with the same splintered visual aesthetic that has trapped her, almost motionless with sadness. Instead, Charlotte Wells’ magnificent Aftersun almost feels too personal for the way in which it textures a relationship between father and daughter that’s acutely aware of the perceptions, mood swings, and minor infractions that color the most intimate of our relationships. This is a film that wallops the viewer in its final moments, accumulating its power gently along the way.
Also written by Wells (and based on an idea of a father and daughter on vacation and not tied to any autobiographical cues), Aftersun follows the lengthy summer vacation of Sophie (played in her eleven year old self brilliantly by newcomer Frankie Corio) and her father Calum (Mescal). All seems bright and cheery on the surface, besides the fact that Calum seems to share custody of Sophie only briefly through a divorce.
The two check into a resort and the remainder of the film observes the two as they interact with one another in both big and small moments. There’s poolside horse play, Sophie’s emergence into the world of older kids and a first kiss, and darker moments of tension, such as the karaoke event that turns sour and reveals a hidden side to Calum that Sophie senses but never sees for herself. Through all of this, Mescal and Corio have immense chemistry as a splintered family trying to block out the rest of the world and enjoy themselves for their short time together.
And enjoy themselves they do. Most of Aftersun is a tender, joyous celebration of father-daughter compassion, proven by the humane camcorder footage of their time together that quickly reverses its happiness by film’s end. But bittersweet old recorded images aside, writer-director Wells maintains not so much a coming-of-age drama, but a drama that understands the fleeting memories of youth sustain us later in life. As the adult Sophie reconciles the time spent at Ocean Park with her father, (in a sequence of dancing that collides both past and present in a thundering movement of melancholy) Aftersun becomes a film about treasuring the now and here.
Aftersun opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday November 4th.