The filmmaker’s father died when Wells was 16, the recognition of which is only hinted at in a film that — though set on a sunny father-daughter vacation at a Turkish beach resort in the late 1990s — is overshadowed by a sense of gloom, maybe even doom. But the dad we initially meet, Calum (played by Paul Mescal with a soulful, brooding melancholy that only infrequently weighs down his sweet smile), seems mostly a goofball. Gradually, though, a darker, more nuanced portrait emerges.
The action of “Aftersun” mostly takes place in traditionally staged scenes of Calum and Sophie (Frankie Corio) on holiday: chatting poolside, dining at a restaurant, relaxing in a karaoke bar. She’s just turned 11; he’s about to turn 31. But at times, we can still catch glimpses of the teenager Calum must have been when he first found out he was going to become a father. At other times, Sophie reveals the insights of a much older person, telling her father at one point that’s it’s “sort of nice” to look up and contemplate the fact that they “share the same sky,” even though they’re apart much of the time. (Sophie lives with her mother in Edinburgh, Calum in London.)
These tender scenes are intercut with home-movie camcorder footage framed as the reminiscences of an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) looking back on her own youth and searching for clues to something she could not recognize as a girl. Though we see little of the now-grown Sophie, her reflections, making up the structure of the film itself, feel tinged with a sense of rue — and the realization that the man Sophie thought she knew as a child may not have been the man he was.
There are moments when this sense of foreboding — a sense of illusion about to fall — is leaned on a little too heavily. During one scene set in an arcade of (mostly British) tourists, we see the words “game over” flash on a video game screen. The double meaning of those words is a bit on the nose in a film that otherwise deftly avoids such easy readings. For the most part, understatement is the order of the day: Calum and Sophie’s interactions are light and breezy, clouded over only occasionally by suggestions that Calum may have money and job worries, feelings of loneliness, and perhaps more serious mood swings. These are subtly signaled by his increasing alcohol consumption.
One especially heartbreaking sequence takes place when Calum declines to join Sophie onstage for a (flat but endearing) karaoke rendition of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Later that night, he accidentally locks his daughter out of their hotel room, and she wakes up later to find that he has a small injury on his shoulder. It’s a series of small and seemingly meaningless incidents that, in Wells’s telling, loom large only from the vantage of hindsight.
The seemingly happiest moments of childhood, Wells seems to argue, can take on somber overtones when seen in the rearview mirror. A day at the beach is all fun and games, in other words, until the night falls, and the burn sets in.
R. At area theaters. Contains some strong language and brief sexual material. 101 minutes.