‘Aftersun’ Offers a Lovely Rumination on Parents and Children
What was once just regular life can, through the prisms of memory and further experience, come to seem rather profound. That’s a sentiment beautifully illustrated in debut writer-director Charlotte Wells’s film Aftersun (in theaters October 21), a movie that considers the past as it was then and as it would come to mean later.
The film concerns a father, Calum (Paul Mescal), and his tweenage daughter, Sophie (the remarkable newcomer Frankie Corio) on holiday in Turkey. Sophie’s parents are no longer together, and we get the sense that this is a rare chance for Sophie to bond with her dad, who lives in London, far from Sophie’s home in Scotland, and is also estranged by something more ineffable than geography. The pair are at an all-inclusive sort of spot favored by British tourists, not exactly fancy, but certainly special enough for the trip to feel significant.
Wells observes Calum and Sophie with close, but not intrusive, intensity. They chat and joke and swim, they play pool, they bicker, they occasionally drift away from one another for the private time that is often so necessary on a family vacation. Mescal and Corio have an achingly credible bond, a feat of acting and writing and direction that thrives in its modesty. It’s hard not to feel as if we are watching real life, or at least real life as it was 25 or so years ago.
Aftersun is, in some ways, about that watching. The film occasionally shifts to grainy home video, as if these are the moments of the trip committed to the record and everything else is stitched together from recollection. Framing all this are brief glimpses of someone we assume is the adult Sophie, which comes to imply that the whole of Aftersun is a sort of mind palace journey, a woman working through a memory of a father now lost.
That implication is subtle and abstract. Aftersun does not hamper itself with ominous portent. Instead, the film quietly gestures toward an ache at Calum’s center, only gently released when he’s sneaking a cigarette out on the hotel balcony, or going for an perhaps ill-advised nighttime swim, or, in a poignant little sequence, lying down on a carpet at a rug merchant’s store room, seemingly straining under a cosmic weight and needing, for a brief moment, a kind of existential rest.
Maybe the cast on Calum’s wrist provides some clues to what’s ailing him. Or his slightly loaded conversation with Sophia about partying and drugs. Whether or not Wells intends to sprinkle context clues like that, a picture of Calum does delicately come into focus. He’s doing his best to enjoy his time with Sophie, but the facts of his life, fleetingly escaped in the glimmering Mediterranean, insist themselves back in.
While all that is happening, Sophie is traversing the familiar wilds of her age. There’s a first kiss, an attempt at asserting herself among some older kids, and a peek at the mysterious and alluring world of sex—typical vacation stuff, in some ways. That we don’t know quite where any of that would lead Sophie —though, we do see her with a female partner as an adult—Aftersun doesn’t feel patchy or withholding. Not everything needs to be explicitly stated for Wells’s ruminations to resonate.
Aftersun, then, is also a movie about inference. What do we in the audience do with the detailed, and yet not entirely fleshed out, portrait that Wells draws for us? We extrapolate, we draw lines between ourselves and the characters in the film. We fill in the gaps between what we know concretely so we can synthesize something like true understanding. Just as we do, maybe, when we remember.
The film isn’t merely some metatextual exercise, though. It’s deeply felt, a warm embodiment of a liminal time in life when our conceptions of ourselves and our loved ones come pinging into focus while also, somehow, drifting into new confusion. Adult Sophie may have hindsight to tell her just what this trip with her dad really meant. But young Sophie ardently feels that meaning too, in her own way. She’s blind to the particulars of Calum’s carefully guarded, grownup pain, and yet she makes room, in all her aspirational efforts at worldly maturity, to see her dad in a different way, to create for both of them some kind of common level.
In that sense, Aftersun is a depiction of the active practice of love, the accumulation of allowances and readjustments that becomes a life-long project. Thus the importance of this vacation, maybe the last dance that Sophie had with her dad, or maybe the beginning of a bitter goodbye. There, at least, were a few days when father and daughter could experience something together. When they could find, or re-establish, a constant amid all their impermanence, far away from home, in a place almost unmoved by time.