The British Isles are patchy at Cannes this year, albeit in far-flung corners of the map: there’s Cornish oddity Enys Men, Irish-set Emily Watson/Paul Mescal drama God’s Children, and another film starring Mescal, also in full-length debut from Scottish writer and director Charlotte Wells. This, Aftersun, is excellent, a father-daughter drama with a touch of mysterious sadness, cleverly reminiscent of a holiday on the Turkish Riviera 20 years or more ago.
Wells based the film on jaunts with her own father in the late 1990s, when she was just hitting puberty and during that somewhat awkward phase when she was too old to play with mere children, but also too young to hanging out with the horny teens at the resort.
As Sophie, that familiar version of herself, she’s cast a bright newcomer named Frankie Corio, who has a magically inquisitive quality. As we watch, she often picks up a camcorder, aligns it with her father (Mescal), who is single after a breakup we know little about, and tries to spend time with his daughter before she goes all the way teenager goes.
There’s a beguiling lightness about the film – it captures that familiar holiday feeling of good days and bad, or mood swings for no particular reason other than spending a little too much time in each other’s company. In fact, Sophie’s father has moods within moods, or a general sense of unhappiness, that he protects her from: if she tries to ask more mature questions about his state of mind, he ducks and ducks. He disguises himself for her sake, and only in his moments of solitude do the demons creep out. We already know from Normal People the subtlety of Mescal, one of the most gifted actors of his generation, but his hints of pain are beautifully downplayed here.
Wells transitioned to the feature after a trio of hugely impressive shorts, including the brilliant Laps (2017), about a woman who is sexually assaulted on a crowded subway train. She has given Aftersun an interesting shape with the camcorder footage, but also with brief time jumps forward where we see Sophie’s adult self without getting to know her fully.
Played by dancer Celia Rowlson-Hall, she’s now around the same age as her father, who we’re beginning to suspect could be their last vacation together. There are strobe shots of her and tiny ghostly glimpses of Mescal in a nightclub, a place that does metaphorical work for the film’s memory: There’s no “adulthood” sign above the door, but that’s definitely the idea .
When the younger, more innocent Sophie insists on singing REM’s “Losing My Religion” at a karaoke night where everything goes, it could be the most poignant and terrifying chant on film since Cameron Diaz Dusty Springfield in The Marriage of my best friend”. But this one is not played for laughs. Stubbornly planted in his place, although she asked him to duet, her father just sits there and squirms.
There are great scenes with the older teenagers fooling around at the pool table, kissing and swearing in Sophie’s presence: acutely recognizable stuff and a slightly dangerous minefield. A boy her rough age who she beats at arcade games and then makes out with her is also a bit menacing. You can pinpoint the period practically to the month, back in the summer of 1999, when the Macarena was still (almost) a non-ironic dancefloor option and Blur’s Tender came out – the latest hint at a soundtrack curated with meticulous care taken by the brings back holiday memories for almost everyone over 30.
At some point during “Under Pressure” at a disco, on the eve of these two characters’ departure, one realizes what the chorus of this song tells us about them, boogieing in what is probably their last dance and certainly at the end of what once in theirs relationship worked. It’s a film of such restraint, lopsided observation, and assured naturalism that the hit of that sentiment is quite unexpected. It heralds Wells as someone with a Joanna Hogg-esque career path beckoning right ahead, paved with a sensibility all his own.
96 mins Screening at the Cannes Film Festival. A UK release date is yet to be announced
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2022/05/21/aftersun-review-beautiful-performance-normal-peoples-paul-mescal/ a beautiful performance from Normal People’s Paul Mescal