Writer/director Charlotte Wells is a critical darling on the strength of her first feature, with an evocative title that brings back memories of parental care; rubbing protective lotions into our charring skin is a vital part of a family holiday that most of us can remember. Carrying off various awards at high-profile film festivals, Aftersun may be a debut, but it’s hardly a film from nowhere; both the BBC and the BFI are involved, and one of the producers is Barry Jenkins, who won an Oscar for the similarly themed Moonlight.
The setting is a Turkish beach resort in the 90’s, where Sophie (Frankie Coriro) and Calum (Paul Mescal) are taking a break together; they arrive at their hotel room to find that there’s only one bed. When a camp bed arrives, the father generously allows his daughter the bigger bed, keeping the ‘tiney-winey’ bed for himself. That’s typical of the generally warm interactions here, as Calum acts in a careful and protective way towards his child, but Wells continually undercuts the atmosphere with indications that Calum is hiding his own personal suffering from his observant daughter.
While Aftersun is smartly enough observed to evoke generally nostalgic memories, with a breezy soundtrack featuring The Lightning Seeds, REM, Catatonia and Chumbawumba, the themes skew specifically towards personal development and embracing an awareness of LGBTQ+ issues. Sophie is pictured remembering her own sensual developments from the perspective of her being a mother in her 30’s (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall) and being in a lesbian relationship. ‘I think it’s nice that we share the same sky,’ says Sophie precociously to her father, but as a child, she can’t quite share or understand whatever his adult issues are. There are suggestions that Calum is unhappy within his own physicality and/or sexuality, and that he may be hiding suicidal thoughts from Sophie, but the audience are left to make up their own mind about what the point of Aftersun is.
If you can ignore the waves of non-stop critical tossery eulogising Aftersun, this is an auspicious debut, largely through Wells’ ability to get sensitive, natural performances from her leads, and through the fresh photography of Gregory Oke. Some of the pretentions, such as Calum’s possession of a book about Scottish film-maker Margaret Tait, feel forced and pretentious, but as a calling card for a developing film-maker, there’s no denying that Aftersun certainly marks Wells out as one to watch.