‘Aftersun’ review: Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio are mesmerizing as a father and daughter in limbo in Charlotte Wells’s extraordinary debut
In the opening minutes of Aftersun, a camcorder goes back through footage, stopping on a young girl asking her father, in the middle of showing her his dance moves, what he thought he would be doing when he was 11. The girl recently turned 11 and the father was as she says, “130 almost 131,” which in kid terms means 30 turning 31. When she asks this question he halts; quickly diverting the conversation entirely, insisting on moving on and refusing to answer the question. His entire demeanor changes and the person who once looked like a star on the screen the camcorder is hooked up to, now has stage fright.
Reversing even further back to the beginning, this story starts with Calum (The Lost Daughter’s Paul Mescal) and Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio), the aforementioned father and daughter duo, during a Summer holiday at a Turkish resort. The resort isn’t great, and the room isn’t what the booking agent booked, but the two of them still make the most of their short time together. Told through the memory of an older Sophie, on the verge of turning 31 herself, who is trying to see the man her father never let her in on. Clearly suffering from mental illness (depression, anxiety, etc.), he hides this side of his life away from his daughter to protect her, giving her the childhood he never received. As a new mother, Sophie longs for these answers, attempting to make sense of her father in hopes of not following the same path with her child.
First-time writer/director Charlotte Wells successfully juggles many different themes in a feature debut for the ages. As much as this is a story about coming-of-age in the 90s, a time before cell phones when LCD camcorders were the only way to capture fleeting moments forever, it is just as much about memories and the longing to piece together the missing parts. Her nuanced script does a perfect job of showing not telling, inviting the audience into the longing mind of Sophie and the broken one of Calum. Based loosely on her own life and her own memories – no, this is not another Roma – Wells taps into the feeling of searching through the unknowing and trying to piece together pieces that never seemed to fit.
The ambition in her script would be hard for any actor to pull off, but the beating heart of Aftersun comes in the form of its two leads, whose chemistry together could fool anyone into thinking they had known each other their entire life. Corio, in her debut, was given the task of acting opposite not only one of the best up-and-coming actors in Hollywood but an Emmy-nominated one at that. She never backs away from the challenge and matches his level at every step.
Sophie and her father are closer in age than most, often being mistaken for siblings, and this closeness in age allows the two to be more friends than most parents can be with their children. The two of them don’t get to spend much time together, he lives in London and she lives in Scotland with her mom, a place he has never felt like he belonged, so the time they do share they spend having fun rather than parenting. Because of this, she longs to be older and fit in more with her father. Oftentimes she will hang out with the older kids playing pool and drinking rather than the younger ones playing in the pool. Corio is a marvel delivering a performance that is both self-assured and whimsical all in one.
Mescal, on the other hand, who has consistently delivered ever since his breakout in Normal People, gives one of the best performances of his entire career as a young and unknowing father with so much to hide. Playing almost two separate roles, he has to find a balance between how he feels inside and how he must approach what his daughter sees. When it finally circles back to the opening question and Calum answers the question off-screen – both out of the frame of the shot and with the handheld camcorder turned off – his broken childhood becomes realized as he tells her how no one remembered his 11th birthday. Mescal remains optimistic about his own life with his daughter, but in the silent moments, when he is having panic attacks or other mental episodes, his fully fractured mind is displayed in a genuine and honest way. His performance helps you understand the brokenness of his character as he displays one of the most authentic looks at depression ever put on film.
When Aftersun reaches its climax, with an “Under Pressure” needle drop so well placed it’s worthy of its own award, a pathos fills the air. Sophie doesn’t know what quite went wrong with her dad, and she likely never will. Charlotte Wells shows these longing moments in ways that can’t be understood, and that’s because sometimes you can’t understand, not always. The important thing is to be there for the people you love while you can and when you can, and throughout the film, both good parts and bad Wells never loses the authenticity that makes this truly special.
Aftersun will be in select theaters from A24 beginning October 21.