There is always some distance between parents and their children, and “Aftersun” sensitively illustrates the growing distance between the father and daughter at the center of its intimate character drama. Nothing much seems to happen on the surface, and they surely look like having a good time together, but we also come to sense how their close relationship is going to be changed in one way or another – especially as the main viewpoint of the movie gradually emerges along the story.
When we are introduced to Calum (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) at the beginning, they are going to some tourist spot in Turkey, and we slowly gather bits of personal facts about them. While Calum was separated from his wife some time ago, Sophie is still quite close to her father despite that, and she is certainly looking to forward to having a wonderful summer vacation along with her father.
Once they arrive in their hotel, they begin to spend their free time here and there, and the movie simply presents one leisurely episodic moment after another as their sunny vacation days go by. They are incidentally not the only guests in the hotel, and there is a little amusing scene where Sophie happens to befriend a boy around her age who is also spending his vacation along with his family.
Whenever they have nothing much to do except getting relaxed in their hotel room, Calum and his daughter playfully interact with each other, and we are reminded again of how much they are close to each other. Paul is always ready to pay attention to his dear daughter just like any good dad would, and Sophie is simply happy to talk with her father, who sometimes feels like a big brother as reflected by one humorous scene between them and two lads who happen to play a game with them.
However, we also come to discern what Sophie cannot see that well from her father. While he is usually kind and generous besides showing some eccentricity, it looks like there is something Calum is keeping to himself, and that sometimes puts a bit of strain on Calum and Sophie’s relationship. At one point, Sophie attempts to cheer them up via an impromptu karaoke singing, but Calum refuses to join her for no apparent reason while becoming unexpectedly sullen and harsh, and he only watches her clumsy singing from the distance.
The movie does not specify at all whatever is churning behind Calum’s gentle façade, because, as implied by the occasional brief shots of older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), the main viewpoint of the movie is from older Sophie looking back on her good time with her father. With many video clips shot by her or her father at that time, she reflects more on her father who is probably dead now, but there are always the areas beyond her reach, and it is apparent that she will never fully know who exactly her father was.
As frankly recognizing Calum’s elusive sides, the screenplay by director/writer Charlotte Wells, who made several short films before making feature film debut here, steadily rolls its two characters along its free-flowing narrative course, and we accordingly get a number of modest but sublime moments to observe and appreciate. I like a small scene where Calum and Sophie visit a local carpet shop full of patterns and histories, and I also enjoy when Sophie becomes more aware of her ongoing maturation in terms of body and mind as hanging around a bit with older boys and girls. She is still innocent, but she comes to open her eyes more to growing up, and we can clearly see that will bring some inevitable change to her relationship with her father.
In case of Calum, there later comes a point where he cannot help but driven by some kind of personal demons inside him, and we naturally come to wonder more about whatever is really eating him inside his mind. All we can know is that, despite that emotional low point of his, he continues to be a good father to Sophie during the rest of their vacation, though she has already come to sense his unspecified personal matters to vague degrees.
Everything in the movie depends a lot on its two different main performers. While Paul Mescal, who previously played a supporting role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature film “The Lost Daughter” (2021), ably holds the ground with his nuanced performance, newcomer Frankie Corio is often compelling in her unadorned debut performance, and she and Mescal are constantly convincing in their several key scenes in addition to vividly conveying to us their characters’ long relationship history. At the fringe of the story, Celia Rowlson-Hall holds her own little space besides being flawlessly connected with Corio, and she is effective when older Sophie is reminded again of her ever-existing distance from her father around the end of the film.
In conclusion, “Aftersun” may require some patience from you due to its slow development of story and characters, but it eventually becomes quite a rewarding experience thanks to not only the terrific work from its two lead performers but also the top-notch efforts from Wells and her crew members including cinematographer Gregory Oke, who did a commendable job of imbuing the screen with a warm and sunny sense of intimacy. In my humble opinion, this is one of the most impressive debut films of this year, and I sincerely recommend you to check it out as soon possible.