Edinburgh International Film Festival reviews: Aftersun | The Plains | Leonor Will Never Die | LOLA

In his first round-up from this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, Alistair Harkness awards five stars to a remarkable debut feature.

Aftersun *****

The Plains ****

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Leonor Will Never Die ****

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LOLA ***

The 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival gets off to a stunning start with Aftersun, the masterful first feature from Edinburgh-raised/New York-based filmmaker Charlotte Wells. Revolving around a young divorced father and his daughter on a cheerful package holiday to Turkey sometime in the late 1990s, it’s a film that comes on like another artfully made coming-of-age drama, yet gradually deepens into remarkable exploration of memory and family and that difficult moment where parents become real people in the eyes of their children.

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When we’re first introduced to Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio) they have the sort of enviable, partners-in-crime bond of family members who like spending time with each other. Sophie is a sweet kid and Calum is a good dad and in the uniquely high-pressure environment of a foreign holiday resort — the sort where forced jollity is the order of the day for the Brits-abroad crowd — he’s the calm centre, never loosing his cool the way he sees other parents doing. In private, though, it’s a different story. There are flashes of sadness and despair, things that Calum’s self-taught tai chi practice can’t quite keep in check. He seems to be white-knuckling his way through something that he instinctively wants to hide from Sophie.

All of which is subtly teased out. Mescal’s performance is delicate and restrained and his scenes with Frankie Corio — a real natural, a real find — are shot through with genuine warmth and tenderness. But he also infuses them with an underlying melancholy that intensifies in almost imperceptible ways, particularly as Wells toggles between Sophie’s in-the-moment view of Calum as her occasionally embarrassing dad and her shifting adult understanding of him as a complex human being.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun.

Wells pulls off this switch in perspective with incredible verve, shooting the resort scenes in an unobtrusive style and intercutting these quietly joyous sequences with shaky holiday videos shot by Calum and Sophie on Calum's new-for-the-time digital video camera. Gradually, though, flash-cuts to Sophie as a grown-up — suspended in the fractal glare of a strobe-lit nightclub — alter our understanding of what we’re watching. The holiday videos become more like a found-footage record of events ready to be scanned for clues. And Sophie’s once-blissful memories of her dad are reframed as something rawer, her hitherto take-it-as-it-comes childhood innocence peeling away like sun-blistered skin.

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On a purely technical level it’s a dazzling piece of filmmaking, but there comes a point — it involves David Bowie and Queen singing Under Pressure — where the two timelines appear to collapse and the film hits you like an emotional tsunami. It’s quite unexpected. And quite brilliant.

Running to three hours and only rarely leaving the confines of a car, The Plains is one of the more formally challenging films in the festival. It’s also one of the most absorbing, serving up a kind of docudrama riff on Groundhog Day by repeatedly dropping us into the unending drive-time commute of its subject, Andrew Rakowski, a Melbourne lawyer grappling with the daily grind of a job he doesn’t much like.

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Shot with a single static camera set up in the back of Rakowski’s car, each scene features Rakowski getting into the driver’s seat at roughly the same time after work, then making the long drive home to the suburbs. Usually he calls his wife en route; often he calls his ailing mother. And sometimes he’s joined by a younger colleague whose taciturn presence encourages Rakowski to talk more openly about himself.

This colleague is also the film’s director, David Easteal, a barrister who makes films on the side and who really did once work with Rakowski. Their scenes together are lightly dramatised recreations of commutes they once shared, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell they’ve been restaged. Indeed the film plays like a straight-up fly-on-the-wall documentary, the slow drip-feed of information accumulating into a moving portrait of everyday resilience against the crushing tedium of existence.

That we never see Rakowksi reach his destination adds to the Sisyphean nature of his journey. He’s like a video game character unable to progress to the next level. But Easteal also provides glimmers of hope by punctuating the film with context-free home movie footage shot by Rakowski. These daydream-like interludes offer a heartening glimpse into another life he’s managed to create for himself away from work. A life that really is worth living.

Proof that big budgets are no replacement for imagination can be found in in Leonor Will Never Die, a post-modern action movie from the Philippines about a retired female genre director (the wonderful Sheila Francisco) who slips into the world of an unrealised dream project after a falling TV knocks her unconscious. Martika Ramirez Escobar’s debut feature exploits this high-concept premise for all its worth, riffing with great affection on cheap Filipino action movies from the 1980s with a film-within-a-film structure that enables her to credibly transform the titular Leonor into the protagonist of a trashy revenge epic. It’s not an empty gimmick either. There are sly take-downs of the thin line between politics and the entertainment industry and amusingly audacious attempts to disrupt the formulaic nature of filmmaking. It’s all done with much energy and great humour, like a scrappier Everything Everywhere All at Once.

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There’s much inventiveness too in LOLA, an intriguing British sci-fi film set during the second world war and revolving around a pair of sisters who invent a machine that can record radio and TV broadcasts from the future. Bowie, the Kinks and Bob Dylan are just some of the yet-to-emerge cultural figures that fuel the imagination of maverick inventor Thomasina (Emma Appleton) and her artistically inclined sister Martha (Stefanie Martini). Funding their reclusive lifestyle by gambling on sure things, Back to the Future Part II-style, they start using their titular machine to help the war effort by supplying Churchill's government with anonymous tips about impending air raids.

Inevitably their virtual time-travelling has graver consequences and debut director Andrew Legge uses this as a jumping off point for an alternate history parable that recalls Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s terrifying 1964 film It Happened Here in its depiction of a world where there are no shortcuts to defeating fascism. Constructed as a black-and-white found-footage film, it’s neatly done, even if the apparent ubiquity of film stock in 1940s Britain isn’t quite as easily explained away as Thom and Martha’s possession of a light-weight, hand-held, sound-recording camera. It gets a bit cute in places too (in another nod to the Back to the Future trilogy, Thomasina and Martha performs the Kinks’ You Really Got Me, turning it into a wartime anthem). But the later emergence of a right wing synth-pop superstar called Reginald Watson (he’s played by Shaun Boylan and performs songs written by Neil Hammond) is an inventive way to demonstrate the ease with which authoritarianism destroys all that’s great in the world.

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Aftersun screens on 12 August; The Plains screens on 13 August, Leonor Will Never Die screens on 16 and 19 August; LOLA screens on 15 and 19 August. For tickets and information see www.edfilmfest.org