Charlotte Wells’s directorial debut film Aftersun is devastatingly understated.
The coming of age drama, set in the ’90s, follows 11-year-old Sophie and her father Callum on holiday in Turkey.
The Scottish born director crafts a deeply emotional depiction of a childhood memory, infecting everything we see with a shade of melancholy and implied embellishments of assumption.
We meet Sophie’s separated dad Callum (Paul Mescal, Normal People) and see him throughout the film through Sophie’s perspective. Initially behind a video camera, Sophie (first time actor Frankie Corio) turns the lens on herself, establishing she acts as director of this film.
The film employs the continuous motif of perspective as a means of memory through seeing faint reflections of adult Sophie watching the VHS tapes on her television, informing the audience that only the tapes show Sophie and Callum as they truly were.
Anything else we see that Sophie sees is how she remembers feeling, which is passed on to the viewer through drifty camerawork and dreamlike editing.
While casting into doubt the reality of events- particularly ones Sophie didn’t personally witness, you feel how she viewed her father; her love for him while struggling to break down the shell he built around himself.
Mescal gives the performance of a lifetime as Callum, a young father deeply troubled by his mental health who is barely holding it together for his daughter. Producer Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame refers to him as a man “wading through wells of quiet anguish”, which Mescal portrays with heart-breaking subtlety through moments of real joy.
This film lives through his performance, as we relate to Sophie, though, never understanding what specifically haunts him.
Wells captures the sensation you have as a child where you can sense something is wrong. and the adults around you are stressed or agitated. but you cannot understand why. This is then layered with Sophie reflecting upon it as an adult.
The film’s greatest achievement is the manner through which it captures these happy memories while creating a veil of terrible loss and sadness both you and the protagonist cannot yet understand.
The elusive nature of Callum’s true issues are only seen twice, represented through what Sophie thinks he was doing while unobserved, but both us and her cannot know his mind for sure.
Due to the film’s sparse use of original compositions, the emotional climax of the film involves David Bowie’s outro to the song Under Pressure, with major alteration from composer Oliver Coates in a scene that may well be discussed, analysed and taught among film scholars and students for many years to come.
A modern masterpiece.