Four stars

Review: James Mottram

AFTERSUN, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this weekend, heralds the arrival of an impressive new voice in Scottish cinema. Edinburgh-born writer-director Charlotte Wells, making her feature debut here, has a keen visual eye and a knack for working with actors, talents that hopefully will flourish in years to come. The film, which has just been unveiled as part of Cannes’ Critics’ Week sidebar, comes with Barry Jenkins on board as producer. Jenkins, the American filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning Moonlight, is clearly a fine mentor-figure for Wells (who is based in New York); their filmmaking shares the same sensual qualities.

Set in a holiday resort in Turkey in the late 1990s, Aftersun tells the story of a father (Paul Mescal) and his 11 year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) as they bond during a few days away. A loose structure hangs around the film, as the older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) looks back at video footage of her father, sparking memories as she approaches a major turning point in her life. The result is a hazy evocation of Nineties culture, adolescence, and father-daughter relations, as Blur’s Tender (with Wells slowing it down to dramatic effect) serenades these two sun-seekers on the soundtrack.

It’s not a film where much information is parsed out, with Wells preferring to let her characters evolve in front of you. Separated from Sophie’s mother, Mescal’s character clearly spent his youth partying. “Can’t see myself being 40,” he says, at one point. “Surprised I made it to 30.” There are cuts to him dancing, wildly, but he seems determined to forge a mature relationship with Sophie. He’s perhaps too open, even discussing drugs with his daughter. “I’ve done it all and you can too,” he says, which might raise eyebrows amongst some parents.

Their relationship isn’t idyllic. An awkward moment sees her sing R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion at a karaoke night, with her father sulkily refusing to come on stage. Later he suggests he pay for singing lessons for her; don’t offer, she replies, when you don’t have the money. You sense the history there between them, grudges held over from the past. But it’s also a coming-of-age tale, as Sophie hangs out with a boy she meets in the hotel, as well as an older group of teens, as her father gives her free rein to find herself.

Wells draws fine performances from Corio and Mescal, the breakout star from the BBC’s 2020 adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. But it’s the way she frames them that really impresses; one scene, as Sophie and her father talk on the bed, is shot with the camera trained on the hotel room television, switched off but reflecting the pair. While Aftersun isn’t fiercely original in its plotting, there’s a genuine sensitivity and intimacy to Wells’ filmmaking. Best of all, it’s a debut that oozes confidence.