British director Charlotte Wells has brought her first feature, Aftersun, to Cannes and has a big hit on her hands. Appearing in the sidebar Critics’ Week section, Aftersun has become one of the most talked about and beloved films of the festival. And rightly so.
Starring Paul Mescal as a young dad Calum and Francesca Corio making an extraordinary debut as his eleven-year-old daughter Sophie, the film is essentially a two-hander. The action takes place during a cheap package holiday in Turkey at some time in the 1990s, although there are also occasional trips to the present.
Calum and Sophie make a great team. There is constant joshing (‘Dad’s 130 and going to be 131 tomorrow’), but the two also watch out for each other, the after sun of the title being diligently applied every evening. There is so much love, too. After a phone call to Sophie’s mum – Calum’s ex – Sophie questions why he always says ‘I love you’ to her and Calum explains quite simply that for him his ex is family. Yet life is not all sunshine and larks. There are glimpses of something darker lurking and the film is infused with shades of nostalgia and longing. When Calum screws up and reneges on his parental duties, his gives an abject apology and makes a sincere plea for forgiveness – and the audience is left in no doubt that he is apologising to Sophie for much, much more.
There are plenty of musical references to the period with the likes of All Saints and Blur making an appearance as well as the Macarena being resurrected. It’s a time without smartphones, hence some old-school technology taking centre stage, most notably Calum’s video camera. Wells uses it to great effect and it isreminiscent of Asif Kapadia’s Amy, with that grainy footage of Winehouse and her pals filmed during headier and happier days. The film opens and closes with the camera. At first it’s Sophie filming her dad doing Tai Chi or embarrassing dad dancing but it is Calum who captures his daughter at departures as she heads home to Scotland from London.
As Calum, Mescal is wonderful: fun and kind, patient and loving yet with almost imperceptible pain not far from the surface. His arm is in a cast and while the reason is never alluded to it is a great signifier of his pain and damage, but perhaps also of his recklessness. Together, Mescal and Corio are a dream team with real chemistry, their relationship utterly natural and believable. Corio is just a delight to watch and a precocious talent.
And while there is sadness here, the film is full of fun and joy and love. Wells also wrote the screenplay and never falls into the traps of melodrama or overly sentimental indulgences. She has created a thing of real beauty with this film and I am already extremely excited about what we’ll see from her next.