‘Aftersun’ review: A Quietly Shattering Paternal Dance

Spoilers ahead.

As naïve children, most of us had a tendency to see our parents through rose-colored glasses. We imagined them as polished, self-assured, and unflappable exemplars of adulthood. We aspired to be as strong as they are, and we were even more eager to obtain the life access they have. 

But this innocent vision blurs once we reach our own adulthood and develop a more realistic understanding of the world. We begin to realize that there has always been a gap—the people we paint as “parents” are also surprisingly, strangers. We know them, but we may never really know them, and even if we do, it may be too late. 

In her feature film debut Aftersun, Charlotte Wells captures this reflection, carefully meditating on the gravity of meeting the unknowable side of our familiar figures.

Opening with a playback of a MiniDV late 90’s video, Aftersun sets the tone as zestful 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio), who is shakingly holding the camera, asks her 30-year-old goofy, brother-looking dad Calum (Oscar nominee Paul Mescal), “When you were 11, what did you think you would be doing now?” 

As we anticipate an answer, the video freezes, revealing a hazy reflection of the 31-year-old Sophie. Suddenly, she whisks us away at a rave, where she wistfully gazes at us under blinking lights. She softly invites us to join her in solving a mysterious paternal puzzle by reliving the last memory she has of him using her miniDV camcorder and her tiny mind camera.  

A cinematic trip to nostalgia lane, Aftersun centers on young Sophie’s perspective of the last summer vacation she spent with her father at a low-end resort in Turkey in the late 1990s. With her parents separated, Sophie has been living with her mom, but this doesn’t threaten her relationship with her dad. Seeing them basking in Gregory Oke’s golden summer haze and soft tones, Sophie and Calum’s charming father-daughter dynamic is a warm and genuine delight onscreen. At first glance, nothing seems amiss, but when Calum is by himself, he is one with his own shadow.

Worthy of his first Oscar nod, Normal People star Paul Mescal is truly a revelation as Calum. He magnificently portrays a financially-challenged, young dad who tries to conquer his own demons while passionately giving his daughter the best vacation of her life. He diligently synchronizes with the sun—when it’s up, he is dreamily radiant, but when it’s down, he succumbs to his personal eclipse. This ongoing shift throughout the vacation is heavy to absorb, enough to remind us that our parents, beneath acting well-put, are just as flawed and complex as us.

Meanwhile, newcomer Frankie Corio is effortless as a young Sophie. She exudes an innocent glow and a summer sun energy that is relaxing to watch; you just know she loves her dad. She feels something has been going on but cannot articulate yet in her own understanding—not at that age where she is supposed to figure herself out too. As we delve further into her character, Sophie accurately expresses a painful side of naivety, the one that unknowingly increases distance instead of breaking it. We are confident, knowing the caring and loving daughter that she is, that she would have been by her father’s side if she had only known.

In between the faded summer memories, we enter and exit the rave. We are eaten up by a harsh strobe effect that restricts what we see. Is that Sophie? Is that Calum? What are they doing? The feeling amplifies a longing for a full glimpse but we can only work with what we have. We realize that the only way to get an answer is to use our own devices—our tiny mind cameras—to cross out all the pitch-black frames and weave the only ones with light.

With such experience and feeling, Aftersun helps us stitch a larger, melancholic portrait of how loss forces us to cling to memory regardless if they are recorded or imagined. Adult Sophie works on piecing two footages: she fills her mind camera’s gaps with the home-movie camcorder clips to form a clear picture, a closure. With the accumulated clues, she contemplates the difference between the Calum as a father she knew and the Calum as a stranger she didn’t. And it’s through this that she silently immortalizes him, attempting to re-meet him with a pair of older and empathetic eyes.

Soft-edged, eloquent, and soulfully aching, Aftersun not only underlines parental mystery but also articulates the quiet desperation of bringing someone back to life, not in flesh, but in mental fabric. After someone is gone, we are left with this harrowing void that only our memory can color. We grow this honest obsession to recreate the final dance we had with them because that is the only way for us to hold them again. As Wells displays such truth in her lingering ending sequence, Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure plays, promising that after the film, you will never hear it the same way ever again.

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