Parents are normal people too. They might not seem it but once you have a kid, you become a care provider, a hotelier, a therapist, a nurse, a taxi driver, a chef and a thousand other things. You become mum or dad and the idea that you too might have a life is something that shrinks.
We first meet Calum and Sophie – played respectively by Paul Mescal and Francesca Corio – just as they say goodbye. Like many things in Charlotte Wells’s astounding debut feature Aftersun, it is captured on a camcorder at the airport as they head to different destinations. It is the end of the story, but it is from the viewpoint of endings that the whole narrative is told.
Calum is taking his 11-year-old daughter on holiday to Turkey. He is a young father and his relationship with the mother has ended, though they are still on very good terms. He is a little lost. Through his conversations with Sophie we learn that he’s broken up with his girlfriend and he’s engaged in a new business venture that hasn’t quite come to fruition. For some reason, his aura leaves a deeply troubling impression. This is a man in search of a solution. Perhaps even desperately.
Sophie, on the other hand, has school coming up right after the holiday and is of an age where she feels like hanging with the bigger kids. Occasionally, we get glimpses of Sophie as an adult and so we know that this is all being reconstructed from memories, videos and photographs. The two enjoy spending time together. They look after each other – putting on the aftersun of the title in a neat metaphor of their relationship. They are genuinely interested, amused and entertained by one another. Calum is protective (he teaches Sophie self-defence moves), but he’s also aware that she’s going to have relationships and will soon be a woman.
Wells’ debut is a frankly astonishing work which will leave a lasting impression. She frames shots perfectly and her use of the nineties setting – the pay-phones and DV recorder – are unobtrusive but folded into the texture of the film. The heat shimmers and the nights are dark and hot, but even in the brightest moments of the day, Calum’s face is in shadow. He struggles to keep his battle in the dark, hiding from Sophie his despair and hiding it from the audience as well. We get a sense of unease, disquiet, heightening to possible danger but everything is offscreen and inferred and we are left – like adult Sophie – approaching memory as if it were evidence, silhouettes as if they are crime scenes.
The performances are extraordinary, managing to capture a naturalism which is utterly convincing. It’s difficult to think of a father/daughter relationship portrayed so touchingly and apparently allergic to cliche. There is real chemistry and affection between the two leads. Mescal further confirms his growing reputation and Corio manages to be exceptionally precocious while at the same time exuding vulnerability.
The music morphs the ’90s disco favorites into something like a chorus. An extraordinary scene of son and daughter dancing to Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie becomes something totally different as the instruments are mixed down, leaving the bare vocal tracks. It is an aural reminder that we are not all listening to the same song.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty