Aftersun review | Charlotte Wells’ sun-soaked debut is a masterpiece

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio impress as a father and daughter on holiday in Charlotte Wells’ debut film Aftersun.

aftersun paul mescal


In Charlotte Wells’ intricate, detailed feature debut Aftersun, video is like memory. Both are fragmented in form, raw, often unfocused, but always there and accessible to us. We can rewind and probe both in search of the truth, but rarely do they reveal anything new or something we didn’t already know. 

Paul Mescal plays Calum, a young father to Sophie (Frankie Corio). The two are on holiday in Turkey, enjoying the sun and each other’s company; Calum and Sophie’s mum have separated, although Calum still affectionately declares his love for her at the end of a phone call.

In the future – or perhaps the present – an older Sophie is drawn to the videos of that holiday, trying to find some hidden aspects of her father that were invisible to her then but so clear now. There is a nagging sense that this was their last holiday together and despite their easy-going relationship, Sophie has some unresolved feelings towards her father. 

Aftersun Paul Mescal

Credit: MUBI

Aftersun lacks conflict. It’s a fleeting, slippery array of memories – real, imaginary, recorded – presented out of order. The scenes of the sun-soaked holiday in Turkey are intercut with scenes of Calum dancing in a nightclub, with strobe lights giving it a fragmented quality. 

The adult Sophie seeks her father in the club, attempting to grab him for some reconciliation or closure or maybe just one last hug to say everything she didn’t get a chance to. Aftersun might be understated but it’s never emotionally restrained. It’s hard to imagine a sequence that could top the film’s emotional climax, set to Queen & David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’. 

Paul Mescal is mesmerising and nuanced as Calum. He brings Calum’s inherent darkness to the surface every now and again, but this is mostly an internalised turn. Mescal crafts a snapshot of an irrevocably broken man, who savours every moment with his daughter. 

Corio is equally brilliant. In her first film role, she proves to be a natural, as if not acting at all. Sophie is cheeky, adventurous and far more independent than I was at the tender age of 11. Together, she and Mescal create a believable, authentic father-daughter relationship. It’s mostly gentle and loving, but there are a few thorny moments for contrast. 


Credit: MUBI

Wells’ direction is remarkable in its confidence and clarity. Aftersun is a visual marvel; it recreates those slightly crappy childhood holidays with precision and care, affection even. There is texture to Wells’ images, not just because some of it is presented through grainy home videos. Wells’ film is truly alive and Gregory Oke’s cinematography captures the characters and their surroundings beautifully.  

Most brilliantly, Wells brings forth the idea that as we begin to form our own identities and find ourselves and our independence, we often see that our parents are people, outside of just being our parents. They existed before us and had personalities and problems, highs and lows, but we aren’t privy to those. 

We’re also not privy to Calum’s problems. He’s troubled, for sure, but we never learn why. Sophie, too, can sense her father’s troubles but he carefully refutes any attempts by Sophie to find out what’s bothering him. There is a sobering honesty to Wells’ approach to parenthood, identity and memory.

But there is also a sense of frustration that comes with Aftersun. A frustration that is baked directly into the very nature of the film; Wells often only implies rather than explicitly says anything which leaves the audience to desperately cling onto every image, every line of dialogue spoken by the characters. Much like Sophie, we want closure, but we are blatantly denied it. 

Aftersun is a true masterpiece. The more I think about it, the more I love it. What I hastily considered flaws, I’ve come to appreciate and see how they form a much more nuanced film than what I was expecting or maybe wanted. With Aftersun, Wells has announced herself as a major new voice in cinema. 

Aftersun is in cinemas November 18.

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