Charlotte Wells makes a rather amazing feature debut in the Critics Week sidebar of Cannes with Aftersun, starring Paul Mescal and nine-year-old newcomer Francesca Corio, about a divorced dad and his young daughter taking a low-key summer holiday in a budget Turkish resort, a sunshine break that is a kind of farewell.
Wells’s movie ripples and shimmers like a swimming pool of mystery; the way Wells captures mood and moment, never labouring the point or forcing the pace, reminded me of the young Lucrecia Martel. With remarkable confidence, she just lets her movie unspool naturally, like a haunting and deceptively simple short story. The details accumulate; the images reverberate; the unshowy gentleness of the central relationship inexorably deepens in importance.
Aftersun is about childhood memories being worn to a sheen by being constantly replayed in your mind, about the meanings that were not there then, but are there now, revealed or perhaps created by the remembering mind, and endowed with a new poignancy and grace.
Paul Mescal is – as ever – excellent as Calum, a Scottish guy who has come on this package holiday trip with his kid Soph: a charming and unaffected performance from Corio. It is the 90s, so Calum keeps in touch with home via a payphone and Soph wonders that he still says “Love you” to her mum at the end of their overheard conversation even though they are divorced. Throughout most of the film nothing very dramatic happens, and even when something important does happen, it is coolly unemphasised: like a live feed from real life, or perhaps an unedited bit of the video that Calum and Soph are making with his brand-new DV Sony handycam.
Soph and Calum have to share a double bed in their room because the travel agency messed up his request for twin singles. But it doesn’t matter; there is no atmosphere of imminent transgression or doom or emotional upset. They get on with their holiday cheerfully enough: going to the pool, hanging out, doing karaoke (Soph has to do it on her own because her dad won’t join in), doing day trips to cultural points of interest, taking the mickey out of the reps. Soph befriends a boy her age that plays on the motorbike game next to her in the resort’s video arcade. Calum embarrasses her terribly with his dance moves at the resort disco and his love of Tai Chi. And when Calum is content to read on his own, Soph gets to hang out with older teen kids because she turns out to be really good at pool, and they introduce her into the adult art of gossip. But one night Calum goes off on his own and gets drunk, overwhelmed with a sadness he can’t show her, and then overwhelmed with guilt at how he neglected Soph.
As for Corio, she isn’t doing Tatum O’Neal-style precocity or acting; she just good-naturedly responds to Mescal’s amiably laidback teasing or chat, without ever being annoying or cute. Their rapport is a marvel, as is the way they have been directed by Wells.
And all this is structured in terms of flashback via Soph’s adult self with great flair, quite unlike the normal way this framing device is managed. Calum’s final walk away from Soph in her memory, down an airport corridor that appears surreally to lead to a nightclub, is a wonderful touch. What a pleasure.