As with the best coming-of-age dramas, Aftersun makes the correct decision to simply step back and let life wash over its characters. There’s very little screenwriting artifice on display here, almost every scene feels carved from reality. Yes, we see flash-forwards, but those only appear in micro-doses. In truth, this is a character study that examines two parallel arcs: The first shows us a little girl trying to make sense of her enigmatic father. In the second, he desperately tries to make sense of himself.
The story takes place around twenty years ago. Young Sophie (Frankie Corio) embarks on a weeklong holiday. Calum (Paul Mescal), her troubled father. She videotapes much of the experience, providing energetic narration as they go. This trip will mark Calum’s 31st birthday. He’s so babyfaced that strangers mistake the two of them for brother and sister. As they settle into a Turkish resort, a fragile sense of happiness pervades.
Despite the carefree atmosphere, a moody, atmospheric fog hangs over the proceedings. Calum’s pleasant, encouraging demeanor masks a swath of deep gray. He’s depressed, frustrated, and probably self-destructive. Sophie dotes on her father so much that she can’t—or won’t—see the brewing clouds or hear the ominous thunder. This heartbreaking naïveté acts as both blessing and curse: Sophie can live in each moment with Calum and enjoy it all to the fullest. Later, she’ll have questions and doubts, and only a few grainy VHS tapes to search for answers.
In the here and now, Sophie shows a few signs of growing up. She meets a boy her age at the resort’s arcade, and they engage in awkward bouts of flirting. The older kids talk frankly about their sexual adventures, and Sophie listens with increasing curiosity.
For all his personal and professional struggles, Calum derives real contentment from being a father. He and Sophie enjoy a genuine bond, and share in surprisingly philosophical conversations. We see the potential for a great father, even as Calum tries to hide his crumbling foundation.
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Aftersun doesn’t really have a firm plot. (Indeed, some viewers might find it maddeningly passive.) Writer-director Charlotte Wells simply follows Calum and Sophie from one freewheeling day to the next. The push and pull of their relationship supplies the film with its only throughline. Other characters pop in and out of scenes, but almost all the focus is the father-daughter dynamic.
On that front, both actors are sensational. Wells gives them unvarnished dialogue–almost nothing about this movie feels written. Mescal and McGraw oblige with relaxed, natural performances. Mescal, in particular, is revelatory. As Calum, he’s young, but worn-out; charismatic, but somehow aloof. Deep devastation lurks behind his easy smile. McGraw nails that weird age, where she still has the guilelessness of a little kid, but the increasing awareness to catch on quickly. She may not have her father figured out, but she’s always watching.
Wells intersperses a few modern-day cutaways that imbue the film with both abstraction and ambiguity. These flashes answer the questions of the main plot with even more questions. As with Banshees of Inisherin and Triangle of Sadness, Aftersun ends on a note of ambivalence. It’s like a music piece that resolves, but not in a way that will satisfy everyone. For my part, I love it when filmmakers leave things a little vague. Calum seems like a mess waiting to happen, and the people who love him will spend their lives cleaning it up. This is a moving, well-acted little drama. Don’t let it slip under your radar.
102 min. R. On demand.