NYFF 60 Review: ‘Aftersun’ is a tender exploration of the intimate space between a daughter and father

Charlotte Wells’ debut film poignantly recounts a woman’s memory of a summer spent with her father during childhood. “Aftersun” screens at the 60th New York Film Festival on Oct. 8 and will be released in select theaters on Oct. 21.

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Charlotte Wells’ feature debut “Aftersun” explores an intimate father-daughter relationship. The film is available in theaters on Oct. 21. (Courtesy of A24)

Stephanie Wong, Film & TV Editor

Spoiler warning: This article includes spoilers for “Aftersun.”

Charlotte Wells’ feature film debut, “Aftersun,” drifts through the avenues of childhood, parenthood and the fallibility of memory, evoking the feeling of a lazy childhood summer accented by hidden shadows and complexities. The film follows Sophie (Frankie Corio), who describes a hazy summer spent on the dreamy Turkish coast with her warm-hearted and loving father, Calum (Paul Mescal), known for his acclaimed performance as Connell in “Normal People.” Her recollection is tinged with bittersweet nostalgia and poignancy.

Corio and Mescal both do a tremendous job portraying an intimate father-daughter relationship. At times, the film almost makes it feel as though you are intruding on the two, thanks to Wells’ elegant focus on their subtle, muted interactions and emphasis on naturalistic storytelling. These specific qualities bring the characters to life on the silver screen and aid the audience in sharing the closeness of their relationship as a third party. 

Mescal delivers a particularly compelling performance: one that amplifies the same vulnerability which he brought to his role in “Normal People.” His character in “Aftersun” deftly balances charismatic, laddish charm with his anxiety and internal turmoil. Present-day Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), now an adult, mulls over old footage and memories from that summer and begins to see hints of a darker, melancholic side of her seemingly carefree father. 

The film lingers on specific moments that highlight this realization — Calum crying in the middle of the night, smoking a cigarette poignantly on a balcony thinking Sophie is asleep, and his muffled phone calls back home that leave him distressed. It is clear that Mescal’s warm-hearted character had hidden unwelcoming depths that he wished to keep from his daughter, in the same way that most parents try to protect their children so as to preserve their innocence. 

Calum’s fervent love for his daughter is made especially clear in a scene where he teaches Sophie how to fight against a potential attacker. As Calum grabs Sophie’s arms and instructs her on how to escape a man’s grasp, the camera frames both characters’ faces close together, marking the moment as a critical one between the two.

“Aftersun” can be interpreted as a coming-of-age movie of sorts, with Sophie experiencing her first kiss and becoming cognizant of the sexuality displayed by the teenagers around her. Calum, aware that the innocence and ease of their relationship would not last forever, does his due diligence as a devoted father, endowing Sophie with knowledge that he hopes will protect her in the future.

Wells’ frequent incorporation of camcorder footage instantly dates the film’s setting back to the early ’90s. The dreamy cinematography combined with the winding pace of the movie makes it all come together with a distinct, memory-like quality. Time in “Aftersun” tends to ebb and flow, cutting in and out from child to present-day Sophie and often focusing on small, seemingly unimpactful moments in the duo’s day-to-day life. 

A recurring motif in the film is breathing. Short meditative scenes are dedicated to showing either Sophie or Calum — or the pair together — simply breathing in and out; these are moments that deliberately steady the film’s inconsistency with time. 

What is behind Calum’s inner turmoil is deliberately kept ambiguous — the audience sympathizes with Sophie as she is left desperately grasping at remnants of her summer to try and piece together a complex portrait of the man she loved. With the debut of “Aftersun,” Wells  has cemented herself as one of the most promising new directors in British cinema of recent years. Her intimate, heartfelt depiction of a tender relationship between a father and his daughter unravels beautifully throughout the film.

In one of the film’s final scenes, Sophie and Calum have their last dinner of the summer together. A waiter offers to take their photo with a polaroid. The frame stays firmly on the undeveloped polaroid as the two continue with their light-hearted conversation. As the polaroid develops into a full-fledged photo, we watch this moment become a memory before our very eyes. We see this brief moment between father and daughter immortalized against the perpetual current of time. “Aftersun” teaches us to appreciate the little moments we have with our loved ones, and how we can eternalize them in our memories.

Contact Stephanie Wong at [email protected]