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Aftersun review – father-daughter holiday dramedy is a sun-kissed gem

This nuanced look at parenthood, with Paul Mescal, announces debut director Charlotte Wells as a major talent right out of the gate

As children slowly grow into adults, romantic naïveté giving way to anxious trepidations, the all-engulfing realities of life are made clearer by the realisation that their parents have onetime had to walk the same trembling paths. It is at this point that one begins to wonder: who were the ones who made me before they even thought of making me? In Charlotte Wells' stunning directorial debut Aftersun, 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) finds herself at the centre of these tricky crossroads.

Grainy images are turned into a time travel machine as adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) revisits memories of a holiday trip sometime in the 90s. Her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), has one arm in a cast and the other lovingly placed around his sleepy daughter as the two trot away from dreary Britain towards the tropical shores of Turkey. Their hotel is a decadent parade of disappointments: scaffolding covering windows, workers carelessly cutting through silence, and pre-arranged requests ignored with blatant disregard. Still, the two persist, finding there's joy to be had in the comical nature of little disasters.

The resort across the street has a heavily chlorinated pool where the next class tier of families sunbathe. Children giggle as they dive, bellies dangerously filled with treats from the expensive all-inclusive package. There, Sophie and Calum play billiards, the dad generously retreating as the girl embarks on the very particular thrill of fleeting summer friendships. At night, with the shy lights of lampposts creeping into their bedroom, the man grips tightly onto his daughter’s small wrists as she tries to wiggle free, playfulness merging into desperation as he briefly allows himself to ponder on the darkness of a world built as a relentless trap for girls like the one in front of him.

It is rare that a filmmaker arrives as fully formed as Charlotte Wells. The Scottish director is not only beautifully attuned to the most minor nuances of human sensitivities, but also capable of translating this natural inclination through a refined command over form. Here, she blends the crumbly textures of camcorder footage with the crisp angles of televisions made into portals and corridors into bridges. Sophie and Calum are imbued with such poignant tangibility one can almost taste the smell of sweat mixed with aloe vera and touch their hands as they linger in search of one another.

As the two turn redder and redder from the warm kisses of the Turkish sun, hesitant prancing gives way to tender stillness. Words are lovingly gifted but also pitilessly spat, Sophie still too young to find the tools to respond to the slow crumbling of her father, whose time spent with his daughter cracks a flimsily built emotional armour. These cracks, as painful as they are, grant the girl a peek into the beautiful messiness of Calum – the man beyond the parent. It is, perhaps, why adult Sophie returns to these days in her mind, the days when she first realised her father was a person of his own.

Aftersun was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 18 November.

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