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LFF 2022 Review: Aftersun – “The portrait of a father-daughter relationship works so well”

Bitter-sweet memories of a sun-soaked late ‘90s holiday burn brightly in writer-director Charlotte Wells’ impressive debut feature. The portrait of a father-daughter relationship works so well, largely due to the casting. Most of the film is a naturalistic two-hander between young father Calum (Paul Mescal) and 11-year-old Sophie, newcomer Francesca Corio.

Although young Sophie doesn’t realise it, her memories combined with home-videos captured on her dad’s mini DV cam will become a personal documentary in adulthood. Years later, she will replay them, trying to understand her father and perhaps even the weight of his absence.

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Calum is stoic and sensitive. The character is not a million miles from Connell, the chain-wearing teen in Normal People that made Mescal a star. He seems lost, a relationship just ended, and with it the hope of opening a café. But he’s quietly spiritual and intellectual, reading Magaret Tait, and practising Tai Chi (or as Sophie says on the payphone to her mum “Dad’s weird slow ninja moves”).

Long since separated from Sophie’s mum, Calum desperately wants to give his daughter a good holiday. But is struggling with financial worries and possibly mental health issues too. “I didn’t think I’d see 30”, he candidly remarks to a diving instructor on one of their excursions.

The 90s period detail and observations are pitch-perfect. The pair are on a package holiday to Turkey, where the Union Flag flies incongruously above a resort bar, grinning reps perform the Macarena dance, and kids play arcade games as Road Rage by Catatonia plays.

Like memories, most of the scenes are fragments of time, with lots of moments unseen and or captured in hazy detail. Flashes of adult Sophie creep into the story, suggesting she is around the age her father was on that holiday.  At times, Calum’s discomfort at being filmed indicates where she’s filling in the blanks. “Fine,” “I’ll just record it in my little mind camera.” she quips. The lines between the captured moments and the ones recreated by memories flow together seamlessly, bolstered by Gregory’s Oke’s sun-bleached, occasionally fuzzy cinematography.

Francesa Corio shines as young Sophie. She is in almost every scene, with a natural comic ability and a straight-talking delivery that cuts her dad (and the audience) to the core – “Stop offering to buy things when I know you don’t have the money” she tells her dad towards the end of their holiday. She isn’t wrong. As a pre-teen, she is becoming more independent and curious about a group of older kids, who are impressed with her pool-playing skills.

Being a young parent is gently explored too. In one scene two teenage boys assume he is Sophie’s older brother. A knowing look between them suggests this might happen a lot. Mescal’s performance balances the conflict of Calum’s parental responsibilities towards Sophie with solitary moments that act like an escape valve: a sneaky cigarette on the balcony while his daughter sleeps, agitated late-night wanders, and memories of pre-fatherhood club nights.

Both characters appear to be struggling to understand the other. They connect easily through jokes, which makes for some fun holiday moments.  But the serious stuff is much harder for both of them to articulate. Calum is evasive about his personal life when Sophie asks. At one point he walks off after an argument, leaving Sophie to fend for herself, but when he apologies late, Sophie shrugs it off, not wanting to spoil their trip to a mud bath.

At the end of their holiday, there is a beautiful moment where Calum dad-dances to the sound of Queen’s Under Pressure which both embarrasses and delights Sophie in equal measure. It’s a scene that perfectly sums up the bitter-sweet mood of the whole film.

For all its subtlety, Aftersun is a highly personal, quietly devastating film. The film’s final moments will stay with you, just ask producer Barry Jenkins, whose reaction after several viewings was “Give me 20 minutes, man, I’m a f***ing wreck”.

Aftersun screened at London Film Festival 2022 as part of the Love strand and will be out in UK cinemas on 18 November.

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