Aftersun movie review: Paul Mescal’s turn as a struggling parent is astonishingly beautiful

Paul Mescal’s latest movie is a nightmare. I had my top-five-movies-of-the-year list all sorted. Now - boom! - I’ve had to start from scratch. Damn you, Mescal, for being the cornerstone of something so beautiful.

The Normal People star is baby-faced Scottish singleton, Calum, spending rare time with his 11 year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). It’s the 1990s and the sun-soaked Turkish resort where Calum and Sophie have gone for a holiday is cheap and cheerful. Despite this, Calum is worried about money, and frequently out of sorts.

At first, Sophie seems oblivious. Gradually (the film is non-chronological and scripted and edited in a way that plugs us into Calum’s past, present and future) we realise the wise child is doing everything she can to perk up her dad. On his 32nd birthday, she gets a crowd of tourists to sing “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. Calum is a good fellow. Jolly would be a stretch.

Mescal is currently in the news because he’s “reportedly engaged” to alt-pop icon Phoebe Bridgers. If that helps the movie, hooray for idle gossip. The 26 year-old Irish actor, famous for bringing sensitive and fragile characters to life, reaches new heights in Aftersun. His eyes (which, in close-up, are so like the bulging orbs of Alastair Sim) are dancing one minute, dead the next.

Newcomer Frankie Corio, with Paul Mescal, is a revelation (film handout)
Newcomer Frankie Corio, with Paul Mescal, is a revelation (film handout)

Unlike Brendan Fraser’s Oscar-tipped performance in The Whale, this turn never yanks at our heart strings. Just as importantly, it never feels like Acting, capital A. What Mescal does is shape-shifting, in its purest form.

And newcomer Corio is a revelation. Think of the most beguiling debuts by youngsters in 20th century cinema: Uma Dasgupta in Pather Panchali; Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay; Drew Barrymore in ET. Corio is casually hypnotic in just the same way, and never better than when delivering a “bad” karaoke version of REM’s Losing My Religion. Sophie, though she gives the song welly, appears to be tone deaf, which is just one of the reasons why her rendition is so poignant. That she’s trying to reach out to her dad - and that he can’t, at that moment, be reached - is what makes it almost too painful to watch.

If you’re the kind of person who chokes up when you listen to the Gil Scott-Heron song Pieces of a Man, you’ll be a hot mess by the time you leave this multi-textured meditation on memory and grief. Scottish director-writer Charlotte Wells has never made a feature-length film before. First time lucky? We’re the ones who should feel blessed.

98mins, cert 12A

In cinemas