Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells lights up Cannes Critics’ Week with Aftersun, the absorbing story of an 11-year-old going on holiday with her father. Paul Mescal (Normal People, The Lost Daughter) stars alongside Francesca Corio in a terrific two-hander with engaging supporting performances. Shot on location in Turkey, the film is partly a comedy-drama about a package holiday, but also a meditation on memories of a father with mental health problems.
The young Sophie (Corio) is clearly happy to be spending time with her dad. Mescal is playing slightly older than his 26 years, but it’s still suggested that he had a child too young. People assume they’re brother and sister; he doesn’t want to hang out with other parents because they’re too old. Separated from Sophie’s mother, he does his best to show his daughter a good time, but there are limits to the local attractions for this slightly odd couple. There’s swimming in the pool, mocktails in a shisha café and one of the most painful karaoke scenes ever put to film.
More fruitful is the neighboring hotel, where Sophie impresses the older kids with her snooker skills and gets a peek into the joys of teenage hormones and all-inclusive holidays.
As a writer, Wells is excellent at dialogue that feels authentic, informative and witty. There’s a lovely repartee between father and daughter that reveals their shared history and humor as well as their differences. Both Mescal and Corio are great at these scenes, as well as more dramatic ones.
Dreamlike sequences show him in moments that may be imagined by the older Sophie, whether he’s dancing and sweating in a club or walking into the sea. Increasingly, it’s clear that he’s facing emotional challenges, and his fate may have informed Sophie’s curiosity about the past. The pair use a miniDV camera to film parts of their holiday, and weaving that footage into the main story gives Aftersun an extra tinge of nostalgia.
While this is not explicitly autobiographical, it certainly feels like a very personal piece of work, and all the better for it. Oh, and the 1990s pop soundtrack is a joy.