It’s hard to explain exactly how writer-director Charlotte Wells’s feature debut, “Aftersun,” pulls off the wave of emotion it instills in the viewer. The basic plot has been seen before: An adult recollects a childhood trip taken with a parent, they bond or share a memorable experience. Yet the film’s true power is not in the details but in the way it somehow embeds itself into your senses as it unspools. Like a faded memory, the formula for how it works feels just out of reach; your fingertips brush against it, but it remains evasive.
So, a metaphor may be in order here. Imagine standing at a bus stop on a rainy day. Your umbrella is up, and only stray raindrops make contact. You become used to the steady rhythms of the downpour and the direction of the wind. And then, without warning, a driver speeds their car through the puddle in front of you, soaking you to the bone.
You were probably aware of that puddle, if only by virtue of knowing how rainwater pools. You just didn’t expect to be drenched by it. The climactic last few minutes of “Aftersun” are like that.
Using occasional footage from a ′90s-era-style camcorder, Wells suggests early on that this is a memory play featuring 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal). Confirmation comes only after we meet the adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) much later in the film. Before she appears, “Aftersun” concerns itself with what may be the last vacation she took with her father. It’s a trip to some cheap Turkish hotel, one populated by stray couples and a gaggle of teens slightly older than Sophie. They let her tag along, so when she’s not with Calum, she’s getting into mischief with them (and a brief bout of innocent romance).
Calum is somewhat mysterious, at least at first. Wearing a cast on his arm, its origin unexplained, he’s seen in an out-of-focus shot doing some form of tai-chi on the patio of the hotel room he shares with his daughter. This is eerily accompanied by the sound of Sophie breathing as she sleeps in the foreground of the shot. We don’t know what eventually happened to Calum, but a betting man would put money on an early death.
A deduction can be made that Calum is not very reliable, probably the reason for his divorce from Sophie’s mom. That he owns several books on meditative forms of relaxation may also imply he may need them for anger management. “Aftersun” subtly plays with our expectations, teasing us about our worrisome predictions. When his behavior becomes petulant after Sophie begs him to perform their favorite karaoke duet, we feel a bit of shiver before our guards are allowed to be let down again.
Wells only hints at darkness in the rare instances Sophie’s memories aren’t in perspective. When Calum appears in that focus, he’s a regular dad. Sometimes he annoys her; other times he embarrasses her on purpose, as all fathers do. Mostly, the duo gets along well, alternating between goofing off and sharing sincere moments. Balancing the timeline of events on that last sliver of childhood before the gulf of independence irreparably widens between parent and progeny, Wells gets a beautifully nuanced performance out of Corio.
Mescal has a far more difficult role to play, one that’s charming yet hard to define. From birth, our parents just appear as fully grown. Calum has to represent Sophie’s childhood definition of him as well as the dreamlike vision her adult mind conjures up during the film’s climax.
That surrealistic scene, which I hesitate to describe outside of it being set at a rave, is set to Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and is the culmination of a series of similarly protracted scenes interspersed throughout the film. It’s here where “Aftersun” splashes us with the full brunt of its emotional power.
Watching “Aftersun,” I thought about Kasi Lemmons’s superb 1997 film “Eve’s Bayou,” which is also about a father-daughter relationship and the way the adult version of the daughter processes events from her childhood that she may not have understood growing up. Lemmons’s film is an exercise in memory disguised as Southern gothic.
Specifically, I was reminded of “Eve’s Bayou”’s opening line: “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others imprinted indelibly on the brain.” That fits so perfectly here. “Aftersun” is about how there’s really no distinction between the two. They both can mess you up pretty good.
Written and directed by Charlotte Wells. Starring Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Harry Perdios, Sally Messham, and Ethan Smith. At Boston Common and Kendall Square. 96 min. R (profanity, brief nudity). Strobe and flashing lights present in several scenes.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.