Although it lacks big stars or crews, After Sun always arrived at the 66th British Film Institute London Film Festival as one of the hottest tickets, riding a wave of success that I’m very happy to say won’t be broken here. After Sun is indeed a rare film that has found a fresh, cutting-edge sense of style that is both hugely creative without ever being remote or unattainable. That he uses this style to tell such a poignant and universal story makes this story all the more enduring and meaningful.
Sophie is a 30-year-old woman and a new mother, but we only see this Sophie in preview, reflected on TV screens and seen from the distant future, because only about five percent of the film is set in the present day, as Sophie sifts through her memories in search of clues. The other 95% takes place when Sophie was 11 and her young father Calum took her to a Mediterranean holiday park for the week. During their happy and playful interactions throughout the week, it slowly becomes suggested that something is up with Calum and as the holidays progress, the two begin to spend more and more time apart. Maybe it’s a spoiler to say that we never really know what was going on with Calum and maybe Sophie never found out either. We receive clues and some might feel emboldened enough to come to their own conclusions. More significant is the effect his behavior has on Sophie. Like many parents, he will be his first experience of heartbreak, and it will be by degrees.
The first thing After Sun a that absolutely plays in its favor are the performances. Paul Mescal will probably sound familiar to you from The lost girl, which also took place in a Mediterranean resort. This film showed us his charm but here he reveals new depths as an actor, grappling with an unspoken inner turmoil, while keeping up appearances for his daughter. He’s a good father, but he’s going through something we don’t understand and neither does Sophie. She herself is played by Francesca Corio in what will surely go down in history as one of the greatest children’s performances of all time. She’s completely authentic and believable every second of the movie, and she’s onscreen for almost the entire movie. Many of his scenes could only have been improvised because I find it hard to believe that a child actor could plausibly convey such a sense of spontaneity.
I remember Roger Ebert saying in his review of For Ellen, that kids under five can make the best actors because they can’t play badly yet. Despite his age, Corio has the energy he was talking about. She’s funny, lively, lost in the moment, curious, confused and increasingly worried. Kudos to her and her director Charlotte Wells for creating an environment where she could give such a performance. If I ever have children, they must be exactly like Sophie.
Getting great performance from your cast, especially a young cast, is one thing. To combine it with such an inspired and articulate aesthetic approach, such a brilliant eye for blueprints, and perfect taste in needle drops (you’ll never listen to “Under Pressure” or “Losing My Religion” the same way again ) bears witness to the presence of a true master of his medium. I’m equally excited and scared to think about what Wells might do next. After Sun. The way she and her cinematographer Gregory Oke use their camera is so subtle and delicate yet so creative and impressionistic and it is used fantastically by the editing.
At the time of viewing, After Sun was my favorite film of the festival. I happened to see an even better one soon after, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the film that Charlotte Wells and her team made. It is one that is subtle, beautiful and so tragically full of life. It embraces both childhood and parenthood in a way that few other films could hope for, and contains moments of the most expressive and articulate humanity it could ever aspire to.