When people ask Charlotte Wells how she got into acting, sometimes she tells them it was a childhood ambition and sometimes she doesn’t. It’s a question the Edinburgh-based New York director has been asking a lot since her feature debut Aftersun became the star film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Sometimes I’ll say when I was a kid I had this idea of ​​being a director and it took me a long time to come back to that,” Wells says on a Zoom call from her apartment in New York City. “But that story is a bit different knowing that I’m coming back to Edinburgh.”

She refers to the film’s imminent UK premiere as the opening gala of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. “Because Edinburgh was where I got up in English class and gave a two-minute talk about wanting to be a director, it feels more specific. It reminds me of how important it was to me when I was younger.

At the time, she didn’t really know what a director did; she just lived at the Fountainbridge multiplex, making the most of her season ticket to see it all out and, in her late teens, spending all her money to attend the Film Festival. “I loved movies and it was definitely something in my head. And then, I don’t know, it wasn’t something that felt accessible or realistic to me for a long time.

Instead, she went to college in London, studied classics, did other jobs, and eventually began to rediscover her original passion: first with a job helping an old school friend to run his film agency in London, then by applying to the cinema. school at New York University. Even after coming in—”Not that I thought I would”—she told herself she would end up working on the business side of film production. But after making her first short film as part of her degree course – on Tuesday in Edinburgh in 2015 – she realized what she had to do and received enough encouragement from her teachers, including film luminaries American independent Kasi Lemmons, Alexander Rockwell and Todd Solondz, continue. “That’s all you need to hear at first,” she says. “I remember being in Todd’s class with the very first draft of this screenplay. He said, ‘There’s something here.’ It was all I needed.

Cut to seven years later and Aftersun is already one of the most well-received UK debuts in recent memory, emerging from Critics’ Week at Cannes to five-star reviews hanging like award-winning tomatoes and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins at board as one of its producers. The acclamation is not misplaced either.

Aftersun revolves around a divorced father (rising star Paul Mescal) and his daughter Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio) as they take a cheap and cheerful vacation package to Turkey. Nothing particularly dramatic happens, and yet Wells manages to simultaneously transform this simple story into a vibrant, instant portrait of the complexities of childhood and fatherhood, and a more abstract meditation on memory.

Aftersun, the feature debut of Edinburgh-born director Charlotte Wells, starring Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio, will open the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year.

“It started off by flipping through old photo albums,” says Wells, picking up on the film’s origin story. “I used to go on vacation with my father when I was a child. He was quite young when I was born and I think just looking at these photos from the perspective of being closer to his age had an impact.”

Initially, the story was more intrigue-heavy, with more conflict between the protagonists. But over time, she began to draw vacations with her father and childhood experiences with her mother and other family members to create a relaxed and largely joyful portrait of a father and daughter, but with a current of melancholy that pulls us almost imperceptibly towards a more raw world. , a more heartbreaking finale. Don’t be surprised if you leave the theater with your eyes wide open.

“Yeah, it seems to get a strong reaction,” says Wells, who describes it as “emotionally autobiographical” from Cannes.

“I didn’t take that vacation, but there’s a lot of me in it,” she clarifies, which seems like an apt way to describe a film that derives much of its power from what isn’t. is not said.

Charlotte Wells

Part of the film’s success in this regard is due to its clever and sophisticated use of flashback to subtly frame the story as adult Sophie’s reflections on a once happy memory that has become a key to understanding herself and her father. How did she come to this process?

“With a lot of effort,” she says. “I never really wanted there to be a very firm, separate timeline or voiceover. And without those things, it was really hard to show how that perspective of Sophie as an adult came through without showing it too much.

The other big reason the film works is the nuanced portrayal of this central father-daughter relationship. While the film offers another great showcase for Mescal after her breakout in TV’s Normal People, the real find is Frankie Corio, a schoolgirl from Livingston, who was found after the film’s casting directors made appeals in the schools, sports clubs and WhatsApp groups. “We spent about six months casting Sophie,” says Wells. “We ended up getting submissions from around 800 kids and then we finally had 16 kids in person in Glasgow and worked with them for a few days. And Frankie really surprised us.

Although she had never acted before, Wells was impressed with her ability to inhabit the character, but also leave her behind when a scene was over. “It just reflected an ability to act. I thought we would find a child who was already like Sophie, but instead Frankie got to become Sofie in her performance.

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“Frankie is so special,” she adds, beaming. “I can’t wait to be at the Edinburgh screening. We’re both going to have lots of friends and family there. It’ll be fun.”

Aftersun opens the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 12. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.edfilmfest.org.uk