Here’s what happened after I watched “Aftersun.”
First, I sat and watched the credits. This is something I never do. After they finished rolling, I peeled myself off the movie theater seat and walked home in silence. No music, no headphones. These are also things I almost never do.
Then, I called my dad. This is something I do a lot. Then I hung up. Because he almost always answers, and I didn’t know what I would say. I was overwhelmed with how lucky I was that I could bet on his voice on the other end of the line.
I took the long way home. I watched snow start to fall. I thought about “Aftersun.” I thought about my dad. I did one more thing I never do: I cried.
It’s hard to identify what about “Aftersun” struck me so intensely. In a lot of ways, it’s a hard movie to connect with. It’s slow and unstructured. The cinematography is beautiful but obscure, favoring subtlety over clarity in terms of character and plot. While that’s never been my favorite type of story, it works in “Aftersun” because the film centers around something inherently elusive — memory.
“Aftersun” is about Sophie’s (Celia Rowlson-Hall, “X”) memories of a vacation to Turkey she took with her father as a child. The film opens with a home video of Sophie’s father Calum (Paul Mescal, “Normal People”) standing on their hotel balcony. He’s turned toward the camera, half eaten by the bright summer sky behind him. He smiles, but there’s an unspoken melancholy that tugs at the scene’s corners.
“Aftersun” zeroes in on this world. The video recording transports viewers seamlessly into the past, watching Calum and an 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio, debut) arrive in Turkey for a week-long holiday. They swim and lounge and explore the grounds of their budget beachside resort. There’s no overarching plot. Writer-director Charlotte Wells (debut) favors simple vignettes that highlight the trip’s importance. We see Sophie eye older kids at the pool, jealous and afraid of them in the way only a girl on the brink of teendom can be. Their room only has one real bed, and Calum takes the too-small cot, ending each night lying on it and rewatching the videos they have made, as if desperate to make sure the trip will be remembered properly. Much like memory, the camera lingers on things that shouldn’t matter — cloudless blue skies full of parasailers, a single slowly developing polaroid picture, empty nighttime beaches.
While Sophie and Calum’s week is ultimately uneventful, an uneasy feeling lies beneath the surface. There’s an expectation of disaster. It’s clear that Calum is struggling with something, though we never know quite what. He doesn’t lash out or break down in front of Sophie. He has one arm in a cast for most of the trip, speaking to some sort of past altercation. He orders a few too many beers at dinners and spends money he doesn’t have. He drags himself out of chairs and off beach towels laboriously, his painfully slow movements lending a physicality to what we can only assume is a tortured inner world. Mescal brings a subdued boyishness to the role that makes it clear Calum has become a father far too young. He is hardly fit to handle his own struggles, much less provide for his daughter. But that is not for lack of trying. It’s understood that back home, Calum and Sophie don’t see each other often. While Calum struggles when Sophie turns her back, he fights to be his best when she’s watching. This is a precious trip. He buys her trinkets and lets her stay up late and reminds her that she can talk to him about anything. The film ends when the trip does. Calum watches Sophie disappear into the airport, his camera trained on her face. She smiles and waves. He does too. Then he’s gone, leaving alone down the long hallway.
Midway through the film, we see adult Sophie for the first time. The film’s real story is not the vacation itself. It’s Sophie struggling to piece together an understanding of her father — something she never entirely manages. What we are sure of is that in the present day, Calum is no longer a part of Sophie’s life. This severance happened at some point after this vacation, and it happened despite the fact that he loved her very, very much.
That was the detail that really got to me — love does not protect us from loss. Calum spent the film yearning for love and extending it unequivocally toward Sophie. He suppressed deep, unspeakable sadness in order to do so. It wasn’t enough. Time and tragedy touch everything, even tainting the happy memories of the vacation. As Sophie watches the home video tapes as an adult, the silence and space feels clouded with grief, even as the duo on screen smile sunnily.
In “Aftersun,” I saw myself and the eventualities of my life. I have an awesome dad. Like Calum, he had me pretty young and never received much fatherly love growing up. Somehow, that has never seemed to phase him. For my entire life, he’s been a steady source of guidance and joy. I imagine that he must mourn his own childhood, but I never see him cry or complain. I can only imagine which of his own sadnesses he has sacrificed in order to be a consistent source of love for me and my sister. One day he won’t be around, and there are layers to him that I will never understand. One day I will be Sophie, combing through happy memories, warping them with grief and guilt, trying to recover a full picture of his personhood. I have the feeling that, much like Sophie, the only thing I’ll be certain to come away with is love. The minute my dad decided to protect me from the world’s harsher edges, any chance at full truth or clarity was lost. In exchange, I got something my dad never did — the chance to be a happy kid.
“Aftersun” is a testament to parental love. It’s a singular memory that asks us to reconsider our own. The day after I watched the film, my dad called me. I picked up. I told him I had gone to see a movie. He asked if it was any good. Yeah, I told him. It was alright. He told me he’d be getting me from the airport when I came home. I told him I was counting down the days. Me too, he said. He told me to call him when I landed. I promised I would.
Daily Arts Writer Lola D’Onofrio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.