Aftersun

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun. Image courtesy A24

M, 101 minutes

4 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

This lovely, enigmatic piece about a young father on holiday with his 11-year-old daughter is as dreamy and intimate as it is light on detail about what exactly is going on. So, we are on the lookout for clues from the start. They are delivered every now and then, but sparingly. In the selection of books that have been brought along for the trip, in an open doorway that reveals a couple making out, and in an aside the father makes during a dive trip.

We know this much. Calum (Paul Mescal) is about to turn 31. His is a closet smoker and there is a plaster cast around his right arm that invites some speculation. Every now and then, he does a bit of tai chi and a spot of meditation, which also helps us understand where he is at. Eventually, it becomes achingly apparent that he is battling depression.

In getting the balance right between portraying a caring father keen to use a brief holiday for getting closer to his child, while he works on himself and his personal demons, Mescal puts in a sensitive performance that is deeply moving. He is well matched by Frankie Corio playing his lively daughter Sophie who conveys the awkwardness of a teenager along with the self-possession of a child.

Sophie and her dad have a warm and easy relationship. The hotel by the sea in Turkey has turned out sub-optimal, but there is a swimming pool, a games alley nearby that is full of other British tourists, and scuba-diving can be arranged.

They don’t, however, go hang gliding. Sophie was no doubt too young for it. And yet the film has a habit of allowing the colourful gliders into frame every so often. They arc in the sky above the pair, like a motif for a kind of freedom that is somehow denied those on the ground below.

Father and daughter connect by phone with Sophie’s mum back at home in the UK. She is the primary carer, and on good terms with ex-husband Calum, but she may be having a difficult time with her daughter on the cusp of adolescence. Who would that surprise?

A selection of books brought along for the trip, an open doorway where a couple make out, an aside to a stranger during a dive trip

The camerawork is one of the most distinctive features of this elusive tale of childhood memory and loss. Gregory Oke has used an intimate shooting style here that combines different modes for a home video look. Calum and Sophie have a 1990s-model video camera that they have brought along on the trip, and they take turns on it. There is an underwater still camera too.

On one occasion, there is a compelling scene after Callum has paid a photographer for a polaroid photo of the two of them out for meal. As the blurry image sharpens in front of our eyes and the two of them continue chatting out of frame, it is clear the photograph will hold a wealth of significance in years to come.

It is a tribute to director and cinematographer that all this variety is not distracting and the narrative is fluid and immersive. The results achieved remind me of the work of the late Chantal Akerman, who filmmakers like Wells and critics alike have long admired.

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun. Image courtesy A24

When you were 11, what did you think you would be doing when you were 31, Sophie asks her dad. It’s a question that we may think we could answer confidently until we delve into childhood memories of our own and wonder how to separate fact from fiction. It’s the worst and most embarrassing memories that can remain clear as day, like the stark and awkward moment when Sophie performs R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’ in a karaoke bar, but she can’t sing.

This first feature by a young Scottish writer-director has not landed on our screens quietly. There are top awards and high praise for her oblique style and command of the medium.

Stay primed for a single standout scene towards the end that reveals the key perspective on everything that has gone before it. A slow, sweeping pan around a city apartment drops hints about how life turned out for Sophie and her dad after that trip to Turkey. It is a brief, heart-stopping scene that is a sign of a filmmaker in great form. And she’s only just starting out.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 February  2023.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes