March 31, 2023

Film review: Art-house hit ‘Aftersun’ opens after successful festival run

Movie explores the mysteries of a daughter’s relationship with her father


Scottish director Charlotte Wells creates something quite unusual with her feature debut, “Aftersun.” She mixes what appears to be a personal video memoir with professional filmmaking to create a quiet, somewhat-melancholic tale of a father and his daughter on vacation at a Turkish beach resort 20 years ago.

The movie is told through the perspective of the daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), who’s 11 years old and on the cusp of become a sexually aware adolescent. At times, we see glimpses of Sophie as an adult. And throughout the movie, she thinks about the father she loved and the father she didn’t completely understand.

The circumstances of her family life aren’t ever explained, but it appears that the father, Calum, played by Paul Mescal, has split with his wife, even though he expresses love for her in an early phone call before departing the airport.

Events unfold like they might on any vacation, with lounging by the pool, taking dips in the sea, playing cards, singing karaoke, video gaming. Sophie seems at ease with her father, but it’s clear that her father loves her. He’s tender and caressing. But he also seems melancholic at times.

There’s even one scene where he walks into the sea at night, and you wonder whether he’ll survive.

We also see him spit into the mirror, as if spitting into his face. And he sits sobbing, naked and alone, one night at the motel.

Sophie spends a lot of time with the other youth at the resort. Most of them are a few years older, and all of them seem to be exploring their emergent sexuality, in and out of the water. Sophie, however, has a good head on her shoulders and doesn’t overindulge the alcohol and other temptations that are readily available.

The dad does tai chi and meditation, and also loves to get up and dance at nighttime parties. Throughout, scenes with strobe lights show dancing in a nightclub at earlier time, and it’s unclear whether it’s Calum or Sophie’s mother or an adult Sophie moving through the crowd.

The younger Sophie is more interested in karaoke than dancing, and she gives a cringe-inducing rendition of “Losing My Religion.”

Wells refuses to spell things out in “Aftersun.” It’s as though she is sorting through memories of her father and trying to place them in some kind of artful order. Yet it also appears that when Calum and Sophie part at the airport after the vacation, that the scene was actually the last time she ever saw her father.

Mescal is well-known to watchers of the BBC series “Normal People.” And all the people related to “Aftersun” are bound to be well-known soon. The movie premiered at Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival and has been getting great reviews on the festival circuit.

It screened Nov. 3 at the Austin Film Festival, and it opens at the Austin Film Society and the Alamo South Nov. 4.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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