Trips to the beach often represent special times with our parents and family. While relaxation may be the goal, there are occasional bursts of excitement or frustration that can manifest themselves on these trips. However, some memorable trips we take with our parents, whether to Disney World or the seaside, become far more impactful as we age into adulthood. For Charlotte Wells, the newcomer director of Aftersun, a vacation with her father becomes an integral moment in her life. The director explores her own upbringing through a fictional but resonant story of a father-daughter relationship. Starring Paul Mescal, giving his career-best performance, Wells creates a universal story of happiness in the calm before the storm.
Sophie (Frankie Corio) travels with her Calum (Mescal) over the summer. The father-daughter trip is seemingly going as planned, but small things begin to feel wrong. Calum wears a cast on his right arm and seemingly disappears into the bathroom for long stretches. He begins to go out at night, leaving his daughter in the hotel room by herself. Twenty years later, a now-adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hail) looks back on the trip, trying to understand her father’s actions.
The deeply emotional and moving story revolves around Mescal’s performance, and the budding star seizes the opportunity. After breaking through in Normal People, Mescal proved more than capable of handling an emotional and internal role. Yet Aftersun forces him to showcase every bit of his charisma. He plays Calum with enough grace that one can easily understand how he could hide his depressive episodes from the world. When given the chance, he is not just funny but charming beyond all reason. At the same time, his haunted performance gives the audience a unique insight into his struggles.
Charlotte Wells lets Mescal put his mark on the character, but she never loses focus on the bigger questions that fascinate her. The simple but difficult moment when children learn their parents are imperfect is never lost. Wells at once paints Aftersun as a memory play but expands the scope beyond Sophie’s point of view. As Sophie fills in the gaps in her memory, Wells makes sure we realize Calum’s genuine pain. Whether every image and visual is true to life never matters, it is the feeling and emotion evoked that lingers with Sophie. Wells’ ability to balance theme with the performances makes it clear that her future as a director is extremely bright.
However, Wells’ choice to make this a memory play also makes it difficult to build some connective tissue between moments. There’s enough narrative to craft a story, but the ambiguity also causes the film to lose momentum. Wells does her best to stitch these together, but this aspect remains the most frustrating part of Aftersun. If a more cohesive and logical structure served as the film’s backbone, it would drastically improve the overall result.
Corio deserves some credit for holding her own against Mescal. The young actress never gets swamped by her co-star’s performance and displays promise. Wells does not always put her in the best situation to succeed, aside from a moment where Corio belts “Losing My Religion” in a heartbreaking sequence. The issues surrounding Corio often fall on the story falling flat in several scenes. Moments that could resonate miss the mark, and as a result, we’re left asking for more.
There’s no doubt that Aftersun features some truly special moments, especially in sequences that involve 80’s pop music. However, these highlights are not enough to push it into the upper tier of 2022 films. Still, Mescal and Wells seem destined for stardom. You cannot reach the highs of Aftersun without something extraordinary within you. At worst, Aftersun will be the stunning piece we look back on in twenty years, knowing it was the announcement of special stars.