In Aftersun, Paul Mescal’s hot dad era will break your heart
Paul Mescal stars as a young divorcee in the 90s-set coming-of-age film from Barry Jenkins and A24, full of beachside antics and melancholy nostalgia.
‘Aftersun’ premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2022. This review contains mild spoilers.
Calum Paterson (Paul Mescal) worries about his daughter. The tai chi-practising divorcee is an anxious and attentive father: he teaches her self-defence, delivers anti–smoking lectures she knows so well she can recite them by heart, and scrupulously dabs her face with aftersun lotion at the end of each summer day they spend together on holiday in Turkey.
At the tender age of 11, Sophie (Frankie Corio) is on the cusp of adolescence, watching with wide-eyed interest and a touch of hunger as her older peers order tall glasses of cold beer and kiss each other clumsily. But Sophie feels secure enough with her father to speak honestly about her desires and misgivings, and Calum – a single thirty-something often mistaken for her brother – can laugh with his precocious daughter about things like crushing on her pretty schoolteacher. They have the best kind of parent-child relationship, not without some sniping, but built on mutual care, trust and honesty — or so it seems.
Hints that something may be amiss are carefully dropped throughout the movie. A reckless, chaotic streak is slowly established in Calum’s character as we catch glimpses of him outside the context of fatherhood, sinking one too many pints at dinner and balancing on the thin balcony rail of their hotel room. In a masterful feature debut, Scottish director Charlotte Wells creates a compelling study of how fundamentally unknowable our loved ones are.
Gregory Oke’s beguiling and inventive cinematography does well to underscore these feelings, opting for low, obstructive angles that frame Mescal mysteriously and emphasise his body language over his facial expressions. Though Aftersun is not billed as an autobiographical film, the sharp, complexly-rendered emotions at play feel very much like a personal reckoning with a particular relationship, but there’s something for everyone in this retrospective story of unconditional love and the inner demons that can threaten it.
For the most part, however, the film’s mood is light and playful, a 96-minute treat that goes down as easy as a soft scoop of ice cream on a sun-dappled day. The late-90s vibes are immaculate, heightened by grainy MiniDV footage and a melancholy pop soundtrack that brings together R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”, Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know”, “Road Rage” by Catatonia, and (of course) the Macarena. Come for Paul Mescal’s goofy dad dancing, stay for the abundant beauty of just about everything else.
Aftersun will be released by A24 in the US and MUBI in the UK and Ireland later in 2022. This review was published during the Cannes Film Festival. Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on movies.