Movie Review – Aftersun

Aftersun (2022)
Written & Directed by Charlotte Wells

Many people will never know their parents as real human beings. That could be because the parent puts up emotional barriers to hide their vulnerabilities. The parent may not want to overwhelm the child with adult emotions they are far too young to understand, which continues into their child’s adulthood. Or the parent could simply not respect the child as a person and think they couldn’t understand. I know for me, my parents will always be enigmas. Estranged from my dad for 14 years and counting and my mom for 3+. It’s better for me that way; they are both broken, toxic people who I don’t think will ever seek out the help they need. I don’t have the bandwidth to do it for them, and honestly, I was neglected in so many ways, so a relationship with them is nothing I desire. But, unfortunately, that’s how life can sometimes be. We don’t choose to be born, and we don’t choose who we are born to. Some people have parents that are grounded, open, and loving. Others have parents who are distant, closed off, and confusing. All we can do is try to make sense of the cards we are dealt.

Sophie is an adult in 2022, looking back on the last time she saw her father, Calum (Paul Mescal). While watching old camcorder footage from the early 2000s, we follow her back in her memories. Eleven-year-old Sophia (Frankie Corio) travels as an unaccompanied minor to Turkey, where her father has booked a week at a cheap resort. He wants to spend time with her, but she can feel a part of him that is so distant that she cannot reach him. Calum wears a cast on his right arm that we never get an explanation for. He frequently stands in the center of the hotel room practicing tai chi or his approximation. 

There’s something big between these two, not a conflict, but rather something he is holding back from her. Sophie explores the resort, befriends some older kids after impressing them with her billiards skills, meets a boy her age, and engages in the subtlest flirtation, but still, that thing sits there. By the time she’s leaving, there’s a powerful air of finality. Calum captures her in his camera, waving goodbye for an absurd amount of time until she disappears into the jetway on her flight home to Scotland. One day she’ll be handed these tapes by someone who isn’t Calum, and she’ll be left trying to piece together who he was.

Calum is clearly a man who is on edge. The dreams he had when he was younger have dried up. His life circumstances, mental health, and economic class all seemed to fight against him. Now he’s the father of a little girl on the verge of adolescence, and Calum wants to guide Sophie. How do you give someone advice about life, though, when your own is falling apart in your hands. Sophie’s dad does what he can. He holds his daughter, caressing her face as she falls asleep. He makes sure she has the best time he can financially provide. But she eyes the all-inclusive bracelets the other kids have, the ones whose parents can afford to keep their wallets open and the money flowing. Sophie isn’t so young that she’s oblivious to what’s happening with Calum, but she is still a kid and doesn’t know how to talk to him about it. So she lashes out.

There’s a point where Sophie says something that stuns Calum. He didn’t think she saw as much as she did; her father believed he could hide his pain from her. So Calum does the fatherly thing in the movie, telling Sophie she can talk to him about anything. He spins beautiful dreams of her having a room in the house he’ll buy one day from the money Calum will make with the business that’s always just about to happen. These are lies hiding his suffering, and she can see that. It takes a lot of strength to call him out how she does, and like a child, she doesn’t handle it deftly, but we can forgive her, and he does, too, though it stings. 

Sophie is so scared to lose him, even if she doesn’t fully comprehend that suicide is a thing adults do more often than we care to acknowledge. There’s a tense moment during a scuba diving excursion when she loses her swimming goggles, a pair borrowed from the boat operator. They are expensive, and Calum is visibly upset about these costing him the money he cannot spare. He dives down deep, deeper than is comfortable to watch. The scene cuts to Sophie in the boat staring at a spot in the water. At first, we read this as her still waiting for Calum to surface. But then we cut again to show Calum in the boat, too, with the captain and other guests. For a moment, we were in Sophie’s head as she was contemplating that her dad could have drowned so easily right then, underlining Calum’s mortality. He’s going to die, which could be by accident in front of her eyes. Because we are ultimately in adult Sophie’s memories, we have to think about how she views this fragment in the present. Perhaps she is asking if it would have been harder to watch him die in front of her than leave her the way he did. Distant and probably through a phone call one horrible day from someone on his side of the family. 

There’s a refrain in the film, a space that exists outside of time & memory, a sphere of pure emotion. Adult Sophie will think about a rave, a packed dance floor where the music blares. There tangled up in the mass of bodies, is Calum, still wearing that damn cast and jumping & dancing with all his might. We come back to this space throughout the movie, and by the end, we cut between Calum’s camcorder footage of Sophie waving goodbye for the last time and adult Sophie in that rave, walking towards her father, pushing through the crowd. No matter how she tries, Sophie knows she will never reach him, but she is happy to see him there, losing control and letting life flood him. A moment comes when Sophie loses sight, and he’s gone now. Sophie is a parent now; she has a wife and an infant child. She’s likely close to Calum’s age the last time she saw him. And without the film explicitly saying it, we can assume she is having similar thoughts. By going back and examining that final vacation, Sophie is searching for an explanation she likely won’t find.

The performances here are brilliant. Paul Mescal is given a challenging role as Calum, asked to portray a man whose spirit is broken yet hiding it from his daughter. The choices he makes on how to let pieces of that depression slip through and his desperation to hold on until at least his baby girl is headed back home to Scotland will break your fucking heart. So too, is young Frankie Corio a fantastic discovery. Child actors can sometimes be a rough dice roll, but Corio is so understated and genuine. She’s the perfect actor to pair with Mescal, and Wells directs them deftly, hiding things under the surface and letting the tension constantly bubble. Everything between the two feels so natural and loving, a parent & child trying to be gentle with each other but also wanting there to be more there.

Like Sophie, most of us rarely ever understand these people who made us. However, that doesn’t stop us from wondering and searching for meaning. When we see the bad parts in ourselves, we want to know why. Is it a virus that transfers across generations? There’s never a clear answer, and Wells embraces that ambiguity. We are never going to have the solution to the Big Why? But in the examination, exploration, and the remembering, we may find some peace & understanding for ourselves and those who are gone.

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