dir: Charlotte Wells
On a nuts and bolts level, it’s a flick about a father and a daughter going on a budget package holiday in Turkey. It looks like it’s cobbled together, in sections, from home movies and polaroid photo moments; moments frozen in time. We’re watching it now, obviously, as it’s “happening”, but I think you’re meant to be thinking of flicking through a photo album from a long while ago, and realising, from details you hadn’t picked up, or from someone or something just outside of the frame, that how you assumed things were way back then might have been completely different.
And then we realise that we’re watching the adult version of the daughter looking back on that holiday and remembering / imagining what was really going on.
As far as I know, the title refers to the kind of lotion you put on to sooth sunburn afterwards, after sun exposure, after it’s, you know, too late. Damage is done. It’s not a preventative, it’s some kind of consolation. It probably makes no difference, now.
Sophie (Frankie Corio) and Calum (Paul Mescal) get along well enough, but there’s some awkwardness there. It could be from the fact that Calum is quite young to be her dad, seeing as he’s 30 and she’s 11. It means he became her dad when he was 18 – 19.
He’s also no longer with her mum, for whatever reason they’ve separated, but they’re lucky to spend this week together before she goes back to her regular life.
They hang out, they swim, they chat a bit, there are some odd moments when they interact with others, or when Sophie tries to film her dad with his fancy new camera, but otherwise there’s no major friction between them.
As far as Sophie knows. What she didn’t see back then is what she can see reviewing the trip as an adult, that things were very different than how she thought they were.
I don’t think there’s any hint of blame or guilt there, necessarily. How could 11 year old Sophie had known how much her father was struggling? It is not reasonable to expect a kid to correctly diagnose their dad’s issues and then be able to help them through it, especially since Calum spends a lot of his energies hiding the fact that he’s struggling so terribly.
Plus, Sophie is a tween, on the cusp of adolescence, and there can be nothing greater than occasionally getting to hang out with slightly older teenagers. It’s better than any drug in the world. It makes you feel like a god. She has all these impulses, and thought we might worry, thankfully, none of that kind of stuff needed to be in the film.
It’s about the impulse, the yearning, not about some cautionary tale, or punishment for being young / naïve / female.
Calum has his impulses as well. We never really understand completely what Calum’s story is. We know he’s struggling. We know he uses tai chi and breathing practice to help with what is probably anxiety, or something even harsher. We see him occasionally drowning in what looks like depression, as in moments where it looks like it’s almost impossible for him to maintain the charade of normalcy, of not wanting to scare Sophie.
This seems like it’s set in the early 90s, so we often see scenes of Calum dancing frantically at a dark rave with strobe lights (for once they didn’t bother me too much), but the way in which the rave is depicted changes over the course of the film. Sometimes it seems like bliss, and not just because of the drugs probably at play. Sometimes it’s frenetic and terrifying. In some moments it seems like if he stops dancing he’ll be dragged under and never surface. And sometimes an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) is in the rave with him, trying to hold on to him, or trying to find him, or just trying to see him for who he is, for real.
But young Sophie sees none of this. She sometimes thinks he’s just worried about money because he doesn’t have loads, and she says something which she thinks is perceptive, which crushes him in a different way. The way the flick jumps around with chronology, in that it’s not linear, is that a simple visit to a Turkish rug shop is fractured, and we get to see different aspects scattered forward, which each bring a heap of more meaning, all of which is “hidden” from young Sophie.
You start to feel sad for her, once you realise that adult Sophie is looking back, realising stuff but also possibly anguished over the fact that she didn’t discern all this in time.
A harmless attempt to cheer her dad up with karaoke leads to a demoralising moment where Sophie sings on stubbornly to R.E.M’s Losing My Religion, in an aggressive monotone, leading to a conversation with her dad which I’m sure adult Sophie wishes hadn’t gone that way.
In another scene, on the day of his birthday, she gets random tourists to sing him For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, and again she thinks she’s doing something sweet for her da, but he looks like he’d rather throw himself off a cliff than hear it.
I mean, I’d have the same mortified reaction, but I’d just resort to covering my eyes and counting the seconds until it ended. In Calum it triggers something worse.
I’m not trying to make the film sound like a slog – it’s not a slog. It is mostly naturalistic performances with natural kinds of dialogue, because the surface of it all is the surface that young Sophie experienced. The additional elements, the freighting of moments, the intent or strained expressions, those are the parts she adds in down the track that illuminate the bigger picture of what really happened, to some extent, or what she imagines was really happening.
The film overall isn’t devastating, but to me the parts depicting or emphasising Calum’s struggles are a devastating portrait of unhappiness, and we get the strongest sense that that unhappiness, for lack of a more clinical or pathologising term, is a key reason why Calum isn’t in adult Sophie’s life. In fact we start to get the clear sense by the end of the film that Sophie and Calum maybe didn’t see each other much before he was no longer around, and that grown up Sophie is looking through the travel movies and such in order to make up not only for his absence but to also find more clues as to what was to come.
It’s pretty strong as a work of art. It’s simplistic to look at the film, and look at Charlotte Wells herself, and declare the flick autobiographical. She has taken ideas, elements of her memories and life story, and transformed them into something else, something relatable and engaging for the rest of us.
It is purely a coincidence that I have reviewed this flick straight after a flick that tried to do exactly the same thing, seeing as Joanna Hogg in The Eternal Daughter tried to take elements of her life story and transform them into some kind of film about children struggling to resolve their feelings or memories towards their dead parents. But where that flick fails utterly, especially when the director has Tilda Swinton saying exactly what she’s thinking straight at the audience as text, this film utterly succeeds. This flick, Aftersun, has enough trust in an audience that they’ll get it without having someone yell the themes directly at them.
But these are also the feelings I come away with having watched this film: Charlotte Wells loved her dad. She regrets that she didn’t realise how badly he was struggling. She admired him for who he was as well, independent of that. She is sorry that she couldn’t help him, but she realises that it wasn’t in her hands to save him as well.
And she misses him still.
And we understand all of that without anyone having to tell us afterwards.
Frankie Corio is delightful as this kid, and she and Paul Mescal play father and daughter so beautifully together. There’s a real comfortable rapport between them, but also the realistic awkwardness that arises at that age where a child is no longer a child, and is no longer comfortable, especially in public, in being related to or treated as a child. And there are the gaps in understanding, in communication, those unbridgeable gaps that we all muddle through, and that they muddle through so well, for us. I wish the holiday could have gone longer.
There’s a lot going on here, but in case I’ve given the impression it’s a harrowing slog, it’s not, even if I dreaded something awful happening to either of them unnecessarily, as it turned out. There are maybe a few too many bits of foreshadowing, but there are also no scenes as terrifying as how purposeful Calum seems when he’s striding out into the sea, and we’re not sure if he’s going to come back.
And that final shot at the airport. My gods. That final shot…
Aftersun was seen as being one of the films of the year for 2022, and I think I can see why.
9 times this is our last dance out of 10
“Don't you ever feel like... you've just done a whole amazing day and then you come home and feel tired and down and... it feels like your organs don't work, they're just tired, and everything is tired. Like you're sinking. I don't know, it's weird.” – the look on his face after she says this - Aftersun