‘Aftersun’: Bittersweet, Dreamlike, And Impossible to Deny

Sun-soaked, melancholy memories of a childhood vacation form the core of this investigation of how the past shapes us.

Frankie Corio (l) and Paul Mescal in ‘Aftersun.’ A24

There’s a distinct haze of memory that permeates Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’ affecting film. It’s apparent in the visual aesthetic, which is awash in sun-soaked light and fragmented editing, and it’s inherent in the narrative, about a woman remembering a vacation she took with her father when she was 11. The story flashes between the present and the past, investigating how and what we remember from key events in our youth. A precious Frankie Corio plays Sophie, who has joined her father Calum (Paul Mescal) on holiday in Turkey, although the resort and the hotel room leave some things to be desired. Sophie doesn’t live with Calum, making him somewhat inscrutable to her as they vacillate between moments of joy and moments of darkness. 

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AFTERSUN ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Directed by: Charlotte Wells
Written by: Charlotte Wells
Starring: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall
Running time: 101 mins.

Calum is doing his best to give Sophie a nice vacation, although he clearly struggles with money. His depression can’t help but filter through even the most sunny days as he grapples with his place in the world and what it means for him to be a father. Sophie, who is curious and searching, isn’t always sure what to make of him, although their moments of intense connection contain an emotional gravity that is palpable onscreen. The story is slight, following the pair through their vacation as we catch glimpses of who Sophie will become in the present, but the story isn’t really the point. This is an impressionistic film grounded in feeling rather than narrative, and the scenes serve to help the viewer understand who these characters are, separately and together. 

Underneath everything is a sense of melancholy, which is apparent from the outset when the pair arrive and discover their hotel room only has one bed even though Calum paid for a room with two. Sophie envies the older girls at the pool who have all-inclusive wristbands, and during one his darker moods Calum refuses to join her for karaoke, forcing Sophie to awkwardly sing alone. As it plays out, you keep expecting something terrible to happen—for Calum to drown, for something to happen to Sophie as she wanders the resort late at night—but the holiday just hurdles towards its inevitable last day. Far worse than actual tragedy is emotional distance, which lingers between Calum and Sophie despite their loving moments. 

It’s impossible to deny the immersive, dreamlike quality of Aftersun, which hinges its success on the impressive performances from Mescal and Corio. Wells’ use of home video camera footage, shot by the characters, is especially effective and plays on our nostalgia of once capturing brief moments of our lives on tiny tapes. The final scenes are evocative and bittersweet, leaving the viewer with questions rather than answers. You feel deeply for these characters, even after only a few scenes, and Wells aptly sucks you into their world. Our memories may be flawed and fragmented, but in Aftersun they are also what roots us to our past and what make us who we are today.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Aftersun’: Bittersweet, Dreamlike, And Impossible to Deny