Release Date – 18th November 2022, Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 42 minutes, Director – Charlotte Wells
Father and daughter Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) spend a relaxed holiday in a foreign holiday park, however much of it plays out like a distant memory.
There’s very little that goes wrong in Aftersun, there’s little hinting that anything will. Yet, writer-director Charlotte Wells’ debut feature is one of the tensest films in years. For much of the 1 hour and 42 minutes run-time I was thrown into an intense state of fear, constantly bordering on a panic attack. All as I watched a father and daughter simply have a really nice time on holiday.
The father and daughter in question are Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio). They’re spending a few weeks of the summer at a foreign holiday resort, having been hinted that they’ve spent some time apart with Calum being divorced from Sophie’s mother. Over their time away we see their various conversations as they walk along the beach, play pool, make fun of the evening entertainment and more completely innocent activities. However, Wells underpins all of this with extremely subtle hints to the deeper, more unspoken elements of their relationship, or perhaps more simply brief visual threats. When the two are walking at a slight distance from each other, or Sophie is allowed to go off and play pool and swim with other kids, or teenagers, around the hotel there’s an inescapable tension that she’s somehow going to be abducted.
On the other hand, there are hints within Mescal’s performance and slight character details that Calum may be suffering from depression, perhaps even turning to alcohol. There’s a genuine worry that arises that at some point over the course of the film he may kill himself, leading to further worry for what may happen to Sophie. Much of this plays out at the same time, with the fear and panic layering to create a truly stressful experience. All while, again, you see a simple holiday play out. One which deeply contrasts your feelings to what you’re seeing.
It may take a little bit of time to properly work out what the film is showing you with its lack of narrative, but as it begins to give flashing glimpses of unexplained or uncertain events your interest in the characters deepens. Shots of what appear to be Calum at a nightclub could be in the past, the near future or a consistent display of what he’s doing while his daughter sleeps. Regardless they add to the film as a whole and the emotional responses it creates within the viewer. Yes, it builds up to something more over time, but much of this largely comes towards the final stages, remaining largely ambiguous for the most part.
The quietness of certain scenes allows for moments of worry-inducing threat to speak even louder. One particular lingering beach shot focuses just as much on the crashing waves as much as it does on Calum at the centre of it. It’s just before this that you realise you’ve been worrying just as much about him as you have his daughter. It’s also around here that the film begins to lean into wrapping things up. It may not be able to build up the same kind of suspense, but it gets around this by continuing to tackle a sense of ambiguity and mystery. What’s going to happen when this holiday that the pair have been posing as idealistic is over? What will happen to their bond once she vanishes into the airport tunnel?
All of this so quietly, effectively held in the background as subtle hints and ideas presented to the viewer behind the central holiday that the central father and daughter both wonderfully, naturally performed by Mescal and Corio are trying to enjoy. It perfectly contrasts with these images and allows for the fear and worry that lies throughout the feel even stronger. While what’s presented should be peaceful and relaxed what’s experienced is a truly emotionally intense ride for the viewer. Debuts don’t often come as emotionally complex as this.
While what’s visually presented is an often peaceful and relaxed holiday the central performances of Aftersun’s father-daughter duo, alongside Charlotte Wells’ subtle layering of hints and ideas, create a 102 minute panic attack through the intense fear and worry created for them.