Opening the 2022 Edinburgh International Film Festival is Aftersun, the delicate debut feature from Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells. A semi-autobiographical tale, the film explores the connection between a young girl and her loving but troubled father, and the lingering effect he has had on her life.
The film is light on plot but by no means flimsy, delving into the relationship between 11 year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her dad Calum (Paul Mescal) during a package holiday in Turkey sometime in the 1990s. Their relationship is warm and fun, as they spend the days teasing each other and cavorting around the resort, fragments of which are captured via Calum’s old-school video camera, which lends the film an even greater sense of nostalgia and poignancy.
Despite the tender and caring nature of their relationship, there is a darkness and pain lurking beneath the surface. Just exactly what is hurting Calum is never made explicit but it is etched all over Mescal’s face and glimpsed through brief observations from Sophie’s point-of-view. He encourages his young daughter to always speak to him, whether it be about relationships, drugs, or any other woes she might encounter and there’s a sense that he wants to prevent his daughter from experiencing the mental health issues he is currently struggling with.
Around the edges of this central relationship, there is also a coming-of-age narrative taking place. Corio’s performance is exceptional, proving charismatic and engaging but also watchful and curious, without ever becoming overly precocious. Calum gives Sophie freedom to occasionally go off on her own, hanging around with some older kids and observing how they interact – how they speak to each other, how they flirt, how they drink – while also starting a holiday romance of her own with a kid she meets in the arcade.
Though almost entirely set in and around the resort, which Wells recreates with impressive levels of period detail and a suitably ‘90s soundtrack, the film ascends to another level when it cuts away to an older, present day Sophie. We get a brief insight into her life as she reckons with her relationship with her father, culminating in a stunning, strobe-lit sequence – set to a hauntingly remixed version of Under Pressure – that puts adult Sophie face to face with Calum, unleashing the pain and anguish that has stuck with her through her life, something that she has in common with her father and something that, ultimately, he may have caused.
Aftersun is a startling first feature, a moving memory of a person that, by focusing on one specific period of time, manages to provide an insightful and authentic portrait of a parent-child relationship and all of the love, pain, joy, sadness and complexity that comes with it.