What happens when you become a father before you’re really ready? That’s one question bubbling away underneath Aftersun, the distinct debut from Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, starring Normal People’s Paul Mescal. He plays Calum, who is trying to connect with his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) when they go on holiday to a Turkish resort. No longer with Sophie’s mother, he’s barely out of his twenties. “Can’t see myself being 40,” he remarks. “Surprised I made it to 30.”
It’s the mid-’90s, although time is very elastic in Aftersun. As Sophie mucks around in the amusement arcades in their resort, flashbacks to Calum’s own hedonistic youth (which coincided with the rave explosion) slip into the film. Meanwhile, wrapping around this are scenes of an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) sifting through old home video footage of their break in Turkey, reflecting on her relationship with her oft-absent father.
Despite an underlying melancholia, Calum’s aiming for self-improvement as he gets older. In his luggage are books on Tai Chi and meditation. And for all their differences, he and Sophie communicate. She tells him about kissing Michael, a boy she meets on the holiday, and Calum encourages her to speak to him about anything. Even when it comes to drugs. “I’ve done it all and you can too,” he says, in what might be either be very modern parenting or a disaster waiting to happen.
Just as in any family, there are issues lurking beneath the surface. In the film’s most awkward scene, Sophie sings R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’ in a karaoke bar at the resort; Calum refuses to join her, then offers to pay for her to have singing lessons when they get back home. Don’t make the offer if you don’t have the money, she replies – clearly stung in the past by broken promises. Guilt, on Calum’s side, slides around this story like a squirt of suncream.
While Mescal and newcomer Corio forge a tight bond on screen – they even get mud baths, in what might be the cutest father-daughter moment this year – it’s the way Wells depicts conversations that really leaves the strongest impression. One sequence, as they talk while sitting on the hotel bed, plays out entirely with the camera trained on the switched-off screen of the room’s TV, reflecting their image in the blackness of the tube.
It’s moments like these that create the film’s intense intimacy, exactly as Wells intended – as if we’re sneaking a look at some discarded home movie footage. Similarly dreamy is the soundtrack, with ’90s tracks flooding our ears (All Saints’ ‘Never Ever’, Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ and Catatonia’s ‘Road Rage’ all get an airing). Best of all, Blur’s ‘Tender’ – a song whose title rather sums up the feelings Aftersun evokes – arrives, warped and woozy in a distorted version.
Liable to increase the cult around Mescal, following his BAFTA-winning turn in Normal People, Aftersun may be small in scale, but it leaves a distinct and lasting impression. No question, it’s the best British movie this year.
- Director: Charlotte Wells
- Starring: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall
- Release date: November 18 (in cinemas)