Memories can be tricky, and are not always welcomed. They can be sprung on you, in tastes and smells that propel you back to eerily specific moments of your life. Often it’s one’s childhood that appears in such moments, and it is childhood which takes centre stage in Charlotte Wells’s new, wonderfully understated film, Aftersun.

Framed as the vivid recollections of Sophie (played as a child by Frankie Corio), a now-adult (Celia Rowlson Hall) reflecting on a holiday in Turkey with her father Calum (Paul Mescal) when she was eleven, Aftersun captures the elusive nostalgia of childhood. The film opens with a home video of the pair joking around – Sophie asks Calum to “stop” dancing with typical child-parent embarrassment. These bits of footage are the film’s pivot: shaky sepia-toned camera work of their sun-bleached holiday resort that make Sophie the director of her own memories. Revealed in the final moments, the film is a mixture of this footage and the memories it stirs in Sophie as she watches it back. Such is the biographical element of the film; it is not difficult to see the parallels between Sophie and her creator, Charlotte Wells, and the viewer is tempted to pinpoint this holiday as the fictionalised impetus for Charlotte’s career as a film director. Wells described watching Frankie Corio handle the camcorder with “the same curiosity for her that it had for me at that age” in an interview with The Guardian in December. She did, however, also make a point of saying that the film’s events are far from autobiographical, rather that the “emotion of the film and the grief expressed” was hers. 

The majority of the film is shot professionally, with simple and emotionally puncturing cinematography. It is the aesthetic contrast between the rough footage of Sophie’s film camera and the elegance of Wells’s which draws attention to the theme of memory. It is a contrast which gestures to the infinite divide between the remembered and the real, and a divide accentuated by disquiet outside the frame. Calum is separated from Sophie’s mother – a revelation that, like most revelations in the film, comes subtly. The viewer is forced to read between the lines following an affectionate yet detached phone call between the two. Later, there are similarly obscured references to Calum’s tumultuous love life and financial instability while he and Sophie have dinner in the twilight at a local restaurant. 

Amid his self-help books and tai chi routines, it’s clear that Calum is fighting something. He weeps bitterly in the cramped apartment when Sophie’s not there, stands precariously on the railing of their balcony, and drinks himself into a stupor on one of their last nights in Turkey. One conversation with a scuba instructor seems particularly telling, as Calum says he “can’t imagine being forty”, and that he’s surprised he even “made it to thirty.” Distressing as it is beautiful, Mescal’s performance of Calum is often what makes this film so powerful. He brings to life a character who is teetering on the edge, torn between emotional distress and paternal responsibility. There is a sense that Sophie is reading between the lines as she watches the holiday footage back, imagining what secret agonies Calum hid from her when she asked:

“When you were eleven, what did you think you would be doing now?” 

This question, in the opening footage of the home video, makes Calum’s smile drop and eyes wander before the footage cuts out. Though there are echoes of this question in the conversation with the scuba instructor, it is fundamental in other ways. The dancing which embarrasses Sophie in this scene becomes a central part of the film, as surreal shots of Sophie as an adult standing in the brutal strobe of a rave are knitted into later parts of the narrative. In these shots, Calum is there, the same age he was when she was eleven. Though never confirmed, the suggestion is that he is no longer alive, perhaps a victim of suicide as suggested through the tentative assertions about his mental health. The importance of the question about what Calum thought he would be “doing now” when he was “eleven,” is linked to the dancing, perhaps representing a carefree youth lost to Calum now. In the penultimate scene of the film, Calum says “Last night. Time for a dance” as they stumble upon a party, the lights of which match those of the rave scene. The rave flickers in and out more rapidly now as Calum tries to get Sophie to dance with him at the party. Underscored by an atmospheric remix of ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and David Bowie, these two shots seem themselves to dance, as Sophie tries to grab on to her father in the pulsing lights before he falls into the emptiness of the screen. The end of this scene converges with the film’s final moment, as Calum puts the camera away in the airport and walks out through a door in which we can just glimpse the strobe of the dream-like rave scene.  

The camera seems once again the pivot, the mediating point between Sophie and Calum’s memories. Brought together in the disorientating choreography of the rave, past and present are brought into painful conversation as Sophie remembers Calum, trying to spot the genuine impressions of her father in the holiday footage. Though this film is filled with warmth and affection, it is also tormented, a distressing account of what is missed, what is not seen. Just like the presence of Sophie’s father in her mind, I have no doubt Aftersun will stick around in mine, revealing slightly more each time I think about it.