VSCharlotte Wells makes a rather stunning feature debut in the Cannes Critics’ Week sidebar with Aftersun, starring Paul Mescal and nine-year-old newcomer Francesca Corio, about a divorced father and his young girl taking a low-key summer vacation at a low-budget Turkish resort, a sunny break that’s kind of a farewell.
Wells’ film ripples and shimmers like a pool of mystery; the way Wells captures the mood and the moment, without ever emphasizing the point or forcing the pace, reminded me of the young Lucrecia Martel. With remarkable confidence, she lets her film unfold naturally, like spellbinding, deceptively simple short stories. The details pile up; the images resonate; the discreet sweetness of the central relationship inexorably gains importance.
Aftersun is about childhood memories brought to a brilliance by constantly being replayed in your mind, meanings that weren’t there then, but are there now, revealed or perhaps created by the remembering mind, and endowed with a new intensity and a new grace.
Paul Mescal is – as always – excellent as Calum, a Scotsman who has come on this organized trip with his son Soph: a charming and unaffected performance by Corio. It’s the 90s, so Calum keeps in touch with home via a payphone and Soph wonders if he still says “I love you” to his mom at the end of their overheard conversation, even though they’re divorced. For most of the movie, nothing very dramatic happens, and even when something big does happen, it’s coldly overlooked: like a real-life live stream, or perhaps an unedited clip from the video that Calum and Soph are making with his brand new Sony DV Handycam.
Soph and Calum have to share a double bed in their room because the travel company messed up their request for twin beds. But that doesn’t matter; there is no atmosphere of impending transgression or doom or emotional upheaval. They spend their holidays quite cheerfully: going to the swimming pool, hanging out, doing karaoke (Soph has to do it by herself because her father does not want to participate), taking day trips to cultural points of interest, taking the mickey out of the reps. Soph befriends a boy her age who is playing the motorcycle game next to her in the resort’s arcade. Calum embarrasses her terribly with his dance moves at the resort’s nightclub and his love of Tai Chi. And when Calum is content to read to himself, Soph hangs out with some older teenagers because she turns out to be really good at the pool, and they teach her the art of adult gossip. But one night, Calum goes off on his own and gets drunk, overcome with a sadness he can’t show her, then overcome with guilt for neglecting Soph.
As for Corio, she doesn’t do precocity or Tatum O’Neal action; she simply responds good-naturedly to Mescal’s teasing or amiably casual conversation, never being annoying or cute. Their report is a marvel, as is the way they were led by Wells.
And it’s all structured in terms of flashback through Soph’s adult self with a lot of flair, unlike the normal way this framing device is handled. Calum’s last walk away from Soph in his memory, down a surreal airport corridor that seems to lead to a nightclub, is a wonderful touch. What a pleasure.