EEarlier this month, the feature debut of Scottish-born, New York-based writer-director Charlotte Wells garnered 16 nominations at the British Independent Film Awards, an impressive number second only to Saint Maud‘s record-breaking performance in 2020. It’s easy to see why After sun has caused so much excitement since its May premiere at Cannes. A brilliantly confident and stylistically adventurous work, this beautifully understated yet emotionally compelling coming-of-age drama picks up themes of love and loss in a way so deft it almost seems accidental. Don’t be fooled; Wells knows precisely what she does, and her storytelling is as precise as it is piercing.
We meet the young, divorced father Calum (Normal people‘s Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (screen newcomer Frankie Corio), holidaying together in Turkey in the late 1990s. Sophie is smart for her age (she and Calum are sometimes mistaken for siblings), but she’s also still a kid, torn between hanging out with the younger kids at the resort or the more rambunctious teens lounging around the pool table. As for Calum, his outward calm seems to disguise demons of denial; a trance-like energy that threatens to break through the calm surface of his current life and drag him into a more chaotic – or euphoric – existence (Moonlight director and After sun co-producer Barry Jenkins describes Calum as “wading through wells of silent fear”).
Scrappy DV-cam footage provides seemingly concrete evidence of Sophie and Calum’s interactions, with both roles played with breathtaking naturalism. Yet After sun is constructed as a deeply personal memory, filtered through a blur of memory and imagination by the now grown-up Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) looking back on things she didn’t really understand at the time. That tension between fact and fiction – between recorded and remembered events – draws us deep into the drama, making us examine each frame as if searching for clues to a hidden truth that remains tantalizingly elusive. It often seems like the Real the story takes place outside the edges of the frame, dancing in the shadows beyond the boundaries of the screen. Compliments to editor Blair McClendon, who juxtaposes scenes and images in an almost hyperreal, dreamlike way, conjuring up a magical space in which time seems to bend emotionally.
Fitting for a work that is clearly deeply personal, Wells says the roots of After sun lay in flipping through holiday albums of herself as a child and was struck by how young her father looked. She later came across a photo of her sitting by a swimming pool in Spain, with “a very beautiful woman right behind me…and I wondered who the real subject of the photo was”. That sense of mystery runs through this mesmerizing feature film, which, despite being largely set in the past, nevertheless feels quirky Gift.
Part of the groundwork for After sun was played in Wells’ 2015 short film Tuesday (she called this “some kind of sequel, in a different place and time”). There’s more than a hint of the tactility of Lynne Ramsay’s early works, with shorts like meter reader (1997) and features such as Pied Piper (1999) clearly serves as a source of inspiration. Just as Ramsay has an almost uncanny ability to capture the texture of memories on screen, Wells demonstrates a Proustian knack for transporting audiences back to a world they haven’t really experienced, while to feel as they did. There are also clear traces of Margaret Tait’s films in Wells’ craft, notably Blue Black Standing (1992), which seems to have served as a tonal reference (some of Tait’s writing is prominently displayed on screen).
Gregory Oke’s cinematography captures the color of memory, with bright exteriors and glowing surfaces carefully graded by Kath Raisch to evoke vivid snapshots of fleeting moments. Composer Oliver Coates weaves his way in and out of the film’s emotional labyrinth, while deftly chosen needle drops (including a mashed-up vocal version of the Queen-David Bowie hit Under Pressure) bring us right into the moment.