I knew almost nothing about Aftersun going in, except that its story involves a father and daughter going on vacation and that its star Paul Mescal received a surprise Best Actor Oscar nomination. (That this and another small, little-seen English film called Living scored two of the five coveted Best Actor nominations for 2022 really says a lot about the current state of cinema, since Hollywood usually churns out buckets of Oscar bait movies with prominent male leads.) I didn't even know whether the filmmaker was a man or a woman. But minutes into the proceedings, I got the undeniable sense that I was watching something very personal: indeed, Aftersun is essentially writer/director Charlotte Wells's memoir.
The film takes place at a Turkish resort town in 1998. The year isn't explicitly stated, but details such as hair wraps and Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" tell us when we are – not to mention the fact that Wells herself turned eleven that summer, as does her onscreen alter ego Sophie, a bubbly Scottish girl played by the adorable Frankie Corio. Sophie's parents are divorced, and her dad Calum, on the eve of his own 31st birthday, is allowed to take the girl abroad for a short holiday.
Aftersun is not so much a story as it is a collection of scenes of Calum and Sophie's vacation, unfurling like memories. Details emerge here and there, slowly revealing that Calum is fighting a losing battle against depression, and yet he is a protective and frankly wonderful father to Sophie, whose childish innocence is gently tainted by her curiosity about what the teenage tourists are up to. Calum is there to carefully guide her into this new stage of her life, but dreamlike flash-forwards into Sophie's present suggest that her father did not live to see her into adulthood.
Aftersun is rich with ambiguity and mystery. Wells may be using the film to try to understand her own father, but she isn't interested in dramatizing this special time in her life in order to provide any tidy answers – not for herself and not for us. Yet there's nothing self-indulgent here. Despite the specificity of its details, Aftersun has a surprising universality. But with the film so short on dialogue and composed of so many fleeting scenes, Mescal's performance, heartbreaking as it is, is entirely bereft of "Oscar moments". I honestly wonder what clip the Academy will screen when showcasing his nomination at the ceremony.