David Jenkins


Aftersun – first-look review

Paul Mescal doesn’t quite nail his role as a depressed young father in this emotionally furtive debut drama from Charlotte Wells.

The opening shot of Charlotte Wells’ dolorous chronicle of a ’90s daddy-daughter sun holiday sees fun-loving teen Sophie (Francesca Corio) pointing a DV camcorder at her father (Paul Mescal) as he bops on the little balcony of a low-rent resort hotel. She jokingly asks him what he did for his 11th birthday, and the mood instantly turns sour: he sternly asks her to switch off the camera.

This suggestion of festering anxiety and omniscient personal demons courses through the ensuing story, as the miss-matched pair politely attempt to enjoy their time on the Turkish riviera among similarly-inclined ex-pat revellers, even if there’s little to do except drink local lager and pump lira into arcade machines and pool tables

Wells keeps narrative context to a minimum, which is both a blessing and a curse. The process of watching Aftersun involves a taxing treasure hunt for clues as to why, exactly, Sophie and her on-edge dad are taking this not-very-relaxing break together. A repeated flashback to an obscure encounter at a rave seems to suggest that Sophie was possibly the result of a moment of drugged-up euphoria, though her mother remains an absence in both physical terms and as talking point.

There are also a couple of flash forwards of two older women with a baby, who are watching the DV cam footage on their flatscreen – the suggestion being that this is adult Sophie wallowing – for reasons unknown – in nostalgia for her tragic pops.

Yet, the film is tragically one-note. Even though Wells attempts to avoid demonstrative gestures and dialogue, Mescal just doesn’t quite have the chops as an actor to bottle up the emotion in a way that brings an essential air of mystery to his character. The stilted manner in which he delivers his dialogue, plus the regular deployment of nervous facial twitches, are constant reminders of his interpersonal shortfalls as a father, and the film steadfastly refuses to move beyond that somewhat minor revelation. It’s actually all there in the opening scene if you’re watching closely enough.

Visually, the film opts for overcast skies and a noticeably spartan resort – shots of disused water chutes and depopulated beach bars serve to enhance the feeling of coiled ennui and loneliness. There’s almost something vaguely surreal about this place: it’s like a ghost resort; or maybe just off-season? The pair are constantly telling each other what a great time they’re having, yet that’s never evident from the scenes we’re privy to. From all angles, this appears like a very dull and pained holiday, and it’s not that much fun to observe.

The saving grace is Corio who, in a superb and memorable debut film performance, brings some much-needed naturalism and grace to proceedings. She manages to strike a tone of external levity and good-humour that actually conceals the mess of internal anxieties about love, sex, school, her future, and what’s up with her clearly-depressed dad.

It’s a shame that Aftersun opts to remain in the same gear throughout in its fairly humdrum psychological inquiry of dashed dreams and stunted futures, as who knows what Corio could’ve unleashed were things to have ratcheted up into second, or even third gear.

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Published 21 May 2022

Tags: Aftersun British cinema Cannes Paul Mescal

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