In many ways “Aftersun” the debut feature by writer-director Charlotte Wells feels like a documentary, or better yet the beginnings of one.  Shot cinéma verité style, we witness a young father named Calum (Paul Mescal) on a Turkish vacation with his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio).  A third of the film features camcorder footage shot by the duo as they ham it up, the rest of the time we are given full access to the lives of these two individuals as they navigate the 90s to create happy memories as Calum struggles with a traumatic past and Sophie transitions into adolescence. 

Immediately after watching Wells’ feature debut, I sent my daughter a text to let her know I was thinking of her.  She’s an adult now but to me, she will always be my baby girl. There aren’t many films that explore that special father-daughter bond. that don’t feature Liam Neeson on a rampage, although two of my favorites are 2016’s “Toni Erdmann” and 2018’s “Leave No Trace.” 

“Aftersun” is a unique film that’s hard to classify.  There is no plot per se, but there is comedy, drama, coming-of-age moments, heartbreak, and hints into a troubled past that plays out in front of our eyes as the daily lives of Calum and Sophie are on display. 

One of the film’s joys is getting to know these characters so I’ll give you just a few details.  Calum and Sophie’s mom are divorced but they still have feelings for each other evidenced by the rapport they have during phone conversions.  He lives in London while they reside in Scotland.  We also get the feeling that Calum doesn’t get to see Sophie very often.  They are immensely close, yet there’s this awkward distance between them that comes from being separated most of the time.

The beachside Turkish resort is nice but it’s obvious that Calum is on a budget since they don’t have all-inclusive wristbands, as noticed by Sophie while observing the other kids.  Still, the two manage to have fun laying poolside, exploring the mud baths, and enjoying dinner and a show in the evening before retiring for the night. It’s not exactly a kid-friendly resort as many of the activities are aimed at adults or teenagers, some of whom befriend Sophie including her in a game of pool.  There’s also a boy around Sophie’s age that shows interest after the two spend some time at the arcade. 

There is a moment in “Aftersun” where Sophie asks her dad how he celebrated his eleventh birthday.  It strikes a nerve as he tells her to shut off the camcorder.  Later he reveals the heartbreaking story to Sophie giving the audience a glimpse of the childhood trauma he’s managed to hide from his daughter all her life.  There are other moments where Calum gets emotional but never while his daughter is around.

Wells’ debut feature marks an impressive accomplishment.  The meticulous details that went into establishing the 1990s timeline include Sony Walkmans, period clothing, and musical selections ranging from “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie (in a wonderful father-daughter dance-off), “Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)” by Los del Río, “Tender” by Blur, and REM’s “Losing My Religion” (as Sophie performs karaoke).

 Gregory Oke’s cinematography captures the beauty of the Turkish landscape at times giving “Aftersun” a surreal quality.  But it’s the performances by 26-year-old Paul Mescal and newcomer Frankie Corio (chosen out of 800 applicants) that radiate on screen.  They deliver two of the finest acting performances of the year.  

Based on Charlotte Wells’ memories of her father, the film is told as a flashback as we get a glimpse of Sophie as an adult, played by Celia Rowlson-Hall, now a mother in a queer relationship. “Aftersun” exists in the experimental realm of cinema, a beautiful portrait of the special yet complex bond shared by a father and her daughter. When it’s over, you’re left with a feeling of loss, wishing the story could continue and yet that is exactly what Wells must have felt while writing her debut feature revisiting the relationship she once shared with her father. 

(4 stars)

Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café and AMC DINE-IN Stonebriar 24

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Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.