It’s already feeling like the discovery of the fall. A small film, a first feature written and directed by the 35-year-old Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, Aftersun has been gaining word-of-mouth acclaim since its premiere at Cannes last spring. Finally appearing in theaters this weekend, it’s a lovely sunlit heartbreak of a film, an intimate, impressionistic story of a young father and his daughter on a holiday that’s both light on its feet—just 98 minutes long—and impossible to forget.
Wells says Aftersun, which is set at a budget waterfront resort in Turkey in the 1990s, was inspired by flipping through old family photo albums and seeing pictures of her dad and being struck by how young he looked. Paul Mescal is that figure, Calum, a strikingly youthful parent who is nearly out of his depth looking after his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie—played by the incandescent newcomer Frankie Corio (herself only 11). We’ve seen Mescal in a couple of films since his exciting debut in Normal People in 2020, but we’ve never seen him do so much with a role as he does here. The subtle way he telegraphs helplessness and buried pain—he’s separated from Sophie’s mom, and something has gone wrong in his life—is mesmerising to watch. He is both a good father, up for anything, and totally unreachable to his daughter when she needs him most. Corio is preternaturally poised for her age, a child actor who seems guileless and assured, playing a girl on the brink of adolescence, ready to discover so many things but not there yet.
The most remarkable thing about Aftersun is how kind it is to both of its subjects—father and daughter—even as it mines a deep sadness between them. (Wells says it’s fundamentally a movie about grief.) This is a film that balances attachment and loss and manages to leave out as much as it crams in. (There is almost no backstory in the script.) Also the ’90s vibes are strong, from Blur to Aqua on the soundtrack. I spoke to Wells, who is a graduate of NYU film school, to find out where it came from.
Vogue: Aftersun seems like such a personal film. Tell me about the memory that inspired it.
Charlotte Wells: I was flipping through old family albums and saw pictures of me and my dad on holiday and was struck by how young Dad looked and how young he was. So it was always about a father and his daughter on holiday who could be mistaken for siblings and who were partners in crime. I do have one memory of sitting in an airport lounge with my dad, and teenagers—maybe like 18 or 19—assumed we were brother and sister. I don’t think my dad corrected them. I think he was really flattered to be mistaken for someone much younger. Over the course of writing it, I started to think of more holidays and started pulling at the details: the warm air when you step off the plane, being on a bus on the way to the hotel at night and seeing lights off in the distance and having no clue what the landscape was or where you are. Memory became the structure of the film. It has this retroactive gaze.
Can you talk about the choice to leave so much out? You’re never fully told where they are, what Calum’s trouble is, what he’s carrying around.
I like making space for audiences to bring their own interpretations. I have my own clarity on Calum’s character and what his struggles are. I have answers to everything. But I purposefully avoid exposition wherever I can. I’m interested in silence. I’m interested in the contradictions inherent in human beings. And I think that lends itself to something that ends up open to interpretation.
You had a ’90s playlist that you listened to while you were writing the script. What was on it?
Pulp and Blur were high up there. Pulp was probably number one at a certain point. But what I love to listen to was not necessarily right for the film’s soundtrack. Since the film is set in a holiday resort, the music had to skew much more pop. If I were to create a very cool ’90s soundtrack for Aftersun, it would sound like the Cruel Intentions soundtrack—which is probably the perfect soundtrack. It has this cool, moody vibe. And here I am adding songs by Aqua and All Saints.
Tell me about casting Paul Mescal in the role. He’s playing an older character than we’re used to for him.
There is a tipping point in your 20s to 30s where you start to feel and look like an adult, and we wanted someone right on the cusp of that, who could be read either way. But when we were considering people who were 30 or older, it never felt quite right. Paul had come from playing a high school and university student, famously, and when he first came into serious consideration, he had really just turned 25. But he just felt believable. Paul is such a great actor. At a certain point details like that became irrelevant because the commitment that he had and the work he put in and the talent he has just transcends all of that.
What was it like to have an 11-year-old, Frankie Corio, at the center of your film?
It means everything revolves around her. It has to—because she’s a kid. She’s in your care. I felt a lot of responsibility for that. And Frankie was just so much fun to be around. I remember a few days into her arrival in Turkey, I hadn’t spent that much time with her—a couple of hours at most—and I was just so relieved at how much I liked her. There was just a nice rapport between the three of us—Paul, Frankie, and me.
There’s an incredible karaoke scene at the end, where Frankie’s character, Sophie, sings REM’s “Losing My Religion” to a crowd of people in the resort’s amphitheater. How did Frankie pull that off?
On camera is how she pulled that off. We spent weeks in that amphitheater. During rehearsals I would sing on stage and dance and make as much of an idiot of myself as possible. I am not a karaoke person. It’s my worst nightmare, which is why the scene is in the film. But she wouldn’t do it. She just wouldn’t do it. We really, really built up to it—and maybe I got her to the point where we could be onstage together. All the while, I knew she was capable of doing it, and I had to be like, Okay, I’m going to trust that she’s going to bring it on the night—and she did, oh, my goodness.
She was in front of a real audience, and we were able to film it one and half times through before we ran out of time. And so thank goodness it was a perfect performance. She starts out, and it’s fun and silly, and then Calum doesn’t come, and it becomes so despondent and sad and awkward. And she was so good. How she was able to do it in the end I just don’t know.
The film is very kind to the idea of parenting and to being a child. Were you determined to strike that balance of sympathy?
Frankie says she thinks she’d be friends with Sophie. And Paul has said how much he loves Calum. I think I love them both. I have a lot of compassion for them both—for Sophie, for this coming-of-age moment and idolization of her father, and for Calum, who is doing his best, which is what we all try to do every day, parent or not. I think in writing it’s hard not bring yourself to the characters. I think there is as much of me in Calum as there is of my dad.
This is only your first film. So what’s next for you?
I have no idea! This film has been my whole life since we came to Cannes with it barely finished. I really look forward to sitting down with a cup of coffee and a blank screen and discovering something new. Writing is torture for me, but the best part of it is that discovery—of something you didn’t know was coming.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This story was originally published on Vogue.com.