Oscars 2023: If ever an Irish underdog deserved to win, it’s Paul Mescal. Aftersun has changed me forever

I completely missed the film’s underlying story the first time I saw it. But the second screening floored me

If you haven’t seen Paul Mescal’s Oscar-nominated performance in Aftersun yet, stop reading this article, consider the poor life choices you’ve made, watch the darn film, and then come back here to pick up where you left off.

I’ll admit, it took me two attempts to watch the movie, but since then I’ve been kind of obsessed with it.

The first viewing was after dinner on Christmas Eve, when we were already lapsing into food comas. Aftersun’s opening sequence includes a scene in which the main characters drift off to sleep, and even after that the film is less than pacy. Within 15 minutes my parents and I were fastening our eyes open with cocktail sticks. We were doomed from the start.

The second viewing, a few weeks later, floored me.


Set in the early 2000s, Aftersun is a coming-of-age drama that follows Sophie, an 11-year-old Scottish girl played by Frankie Corio, and her father, Calum, played by Mescal, on a package holiday at a seaside resort in Turkey. It’s the eve of Calum’s 31st birthday, but people often mistake him for Sophie’s older brother, which leads to an intimate father-daughter dynamic rarely seen on screen.

The pair spend their time sightseeing, snorkelling, befriending other Britons at the resort – Mescal does a convincing Scottish accent – and getting up to all sorts of other shenanigans while Sophie’s mother stays in the UK.

The audience often see events through Sophie’s eyes, via footage that the ever-curious child has shot on a digital camcorder. Paired with grainy, saturated cinematography, the effect is to make you feel as if you’re experiencing a hazy memory alongside Sophie.

“That was lovely! I’m so glad I went back and finished it,” I said to my girlfriend after seeing the film all the way through for the first time. She was puzzled. Did I not realise what had happened?

The film ends with an adult Sophie, now the age her father was on their holiday, rewatching her old footage in an effort to make sense of an unspoken tragedy that ensued.

I’d realised that Mescal’s character probably needed to talk about his feelings, but I’d still regarded Aftersun as a heart-warming father-daughter film. It was a shock when I grasped the masked truth of its ending. I’d missed most of the fleeting moments when Calum shows signs of depression: standing precariously on the edge of a balcony, submerging himself under crashing waves in the dead of night, buying an extravagant rug he can’t afford, and sobbing alone by a letter to his daughter in which he expresses his love for her.

With hindsight, it’s clear that Sophie’s father is mentally ill. I’d just assumed he was impulsive or missed his relationship with Sophie’s mother.

The actor has spoken about exercising restraint as an actor and the few scenes in which Calum’s mask slips. “I’ve got three or four moments when I get to let the audience in,” Mescal says. “As an actor it’s exciting and scary, because if I don’t land these beats the audience won’t understand.”

Land them he does – but subtly, doing just enough to get the message across while “keeping the audience on the edge of what they’re encountering”. That I missed the signs revealed something about me, I think, and perhaps about other viewers of the film.

Aftersun culminates in a dance between Calum and Sophie to an ethereal remix of Under Pressure, the song by Queen and David Bowie. Present-day Sophie reaches out to the memory of her father, craving one last embrace from a time she was unaware would be so significant. Bowie’s line “This is our last dance” has a tragic meaning that says all that’s needed to end the film.

I failed to connect the dots and understand that Calum’s erratic behaviour was the manifestation of a deep depression – and, much like present-day Sophie, I find myself watching clips from the film over and over, to see how I could have missed the signs. I’m in awe of Mescal’s performance yet driven demented by the way Calum’s depressive episodes went over my head. They’re so obvious now.

Am I missing similar signs in my own life, whether in a friend, family member or colleague? What if I don’t see them until it’s too late? The reality, for me as a young person, is that four in 10 of my male friends and more than half of my female friends likely came out of the pandemic depressed.

Aftersun has made me pay far more attention to how other people might really be feeling. That’s what a good film should do: instil a change of mindset and call its audience to action. For this achievement the film’s writer and director, Charlotte Wells, has received no shortage of awards, including this year’s Bafta for outstanding debut.

Wells loosely based Aftersun on her experience of going on a similar trip. This “emotionally autobiographical” story, as she calls it, appears now as an ode to her father and, it seems fair to say, a plea for others to recognise what Sophie did not. But how could she? Mescal’s heartbreaking portrayal of an internally tortured man deals in nuances, not red flags.

I don’t expect him to win the best-actor Oscar on Sunday night: the competition from Colin Farrell, Bill Nighy, Brendan Fraser and Austin Butler is too strong. But if ever an Irish underdog deserved to triumph, it’s Paul Mescal. In my book he deserves all the praise coming his way – even if he’s prone to that quintessential Irish blush when faced with a compliment.

If you have been affected by any issue in this article, help and support are available from Pieta (1800-247247, or text help to 51444), Samaritans (116123, or email jo@samaritans.ie or jo@samaritans.org) and the Your Mental Health information service (1800-111888)