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There’s a miracle inherent in Aftersun; it’s so adept at capturing the feel of a memory that it essentially becomes one of yours. In her feature debut, writer-director Charlotte Wells explores the fissures in a relationship between an 11-year-old girl and her young father as they vacation in Turkey. With little discernible plot, Wells crafts her story through a series of moments that accrue a swirling power. That’s how memory works. The little moments stand out, and only over time do you understand what they mean.
Aftersun hones in on that time of life when you are still a child but adulthood is so close you can brush it with your fingertips. Sophie (Frankie Corio) is a child of divorce, so she’s already closer to adulthood than most. At a resort with her father (Paul Mescal), she eavesdrops on tense phone conversations between her parents, and endures awkward exchanges in which father and daughter catch up on details from each other’s lives that they should already know. Maturity may have been thrust upon her, but Sophie still enjoys the spoils of youth. She plays arcade games, swims in the pool, and records funny interviews with her dad on a home video camera. She’s already desperate to capture the innocence that is slipping away.
The actors are remarkable together, forming a complex and believable chemistry in which the remnants of a natural rapport are interspersed with adult passive-aggression. Corio never hits a false note, whether she’s folding into her father’s embrace or challenging his weak spots with the precision that only a child can muster. When Frankie ventures outside his orbit, hanging out with some teenagers at the hotel pool, she retreats into herself, but Corio never shuts down. Her eyes remain open, soaking up knowledge and transforming a little bit with every new piece of information.
As Calum, which Sophie insists on calling him, Mescal weaves together an even more compelling performance. What little we know of him is briefly disbursed by Wells’ screenplay: He’s young enough to be mistaken for Sophie’s older brother, and he hasn’t yet figured out a career. He doesn’t have his shit together. And yet he appears at ease in the role of goofy dad, and is especially talented at the time-honored tradition of embarrassing her in public. But almost imperceptibly, cracks begin to show. Mescal is superbly restrained, holding his emotions in the way a young father might think he should, and he conveys the symptoms of a breakdown without ever screaming it to the cheap seats.
This emotional high-wire act is masterfully conducted by Wells, who brings a piercing artistic vision to a story deeply grounded in human nuance. Somewhere in the creative process, there must have been a temptation to tell this story more conventionally, with higher-pitched tension, blow-ups between father and daughter, and a parade of Oscar-ready monologues. Instead, Wells gives us only a series of puzzle pieces that require close scrutiny. It pays off marvelously. At first, you observe these characters, but soon you realize you’ve skipped over caring about them and have landed in a place of pure identification. This is essentially Wells’ memoir—she has termed the film “emotionally autobiographical”—but in another, truer sense, it’s yours.
Aftersun is currently playing in area theaters.