It’s almost natural for children to idealize their parents. We’re conditioned to see them as our heroes and saviors. They protect us; they guide us. We grow up getting to know them just as much as they get to know us. And it’s equally true that the relationship between parent and child is not a one-way street. What’s often unsaid is how much kids shape their parents’ lives – a symbiosis of mutual nurturing neglected in parent/child relationships. Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’ tender portrayal of father/daughter relationships, ventures into the more nuanced complications of dynamics between a parent and their child. The film hits a sensitive nerve in its simplicity by excavating feelings that we’re too young to name at the time but must retrace to better understand where we come from.
Withholding information works to Aftersun‘s advantage. It captures a moment in time, the memory that seems long and extended but is only a fraction of our lives. In the case of Aftersun, this one footnote in Sophie’s (Frankie Corio) life becomes the narrative of the entire film. For Sophie, one particular holiday with her father, Calum (Paul Mescal), sticks out more than any other memory. There’s no definitive answer as to why Sophie, aged out, looks back at this particular moment with her dad. (Although it’s implied that it’s the last time Sophie sees her father after that). There’s also no urgency to find out. The flashback alone is powerful to narrate a story of a father and daughter who both had to grow up faster than either imagined.
The film’s undercurrent saturates everything with nostalgia. You feel that every interaction between Calum and Sophie is the last they’ll ever have. Aftersun uses a combination of cinéma vérité (as the characters use a video recorder, plunging the viewer in mixed POVs of father and daughter) and stilted scenes where their faces can’t be seen while talking. It’s an effective way of recreating memories of a child. Of piecing together the memories of a kid who probably endured the loss of her father and is trying to understand better what happened while endeavoring to remember the good moments she had with him.
Wells created a masterful siphon through which to travel back in time, tragically beautiful as Sophie takes us back with her. Gregory Oke soft-tinged cinematography creates a palette that softens the edges of loss. Open for interpretation, Aftersun hints at what prompts Sophie to look back through old footage and memories of the holiday. Personally, the details don’t matter. What Sophie hopes to find in these old videos and her past seems to bring her peace by the end. In a masterful use of Queen and David Bowie‘s “Under Pressure,” a five-minute sequence jumps between past and present – and then merges at one point, with Sophie and her father around the same age, coming together for an embrace in the middle of a darkened room. Lights flash, “Under Pressure” goes acoustic, and time melds for that moment, giving both Sophie and Aftersun‘s audience a kind of resolution. Calum is gone — but gone to where? It doesn’t matter. All that does is the love that pours out of the final embrace.
Films like this can easily veer off into self-indulgence and images that are beautiful, but empty. Thankfully, this is not the case for Aftersun. As we unravel the memories of Sophie’s holiday with her father, they begin to tell a story of the hardship that comes with parenthood. The complicated nature of maturity and guilt is wrapped tightly with love and devotion, especially when fathering a child at the young age of 19 — Calum is only just a kid himself. Now at 30, Calum finds himself with the unexpected shame of not having accomplished enough in his life – not just for himself but Sophie. What Calum lacks in riches he makes up for in emotional intelligence, which explains Sophie’s premature adulthood to some extent. And yet that maturity is not enough to save Calum from the expectations of a culture that values productivity over love.
In a spellbinding 96 minutes, Aftersun manages to rip your heart out. It’s its mixture of grief and longing that makes this film truly shine. Aftersun doesn’t patronize Sophie’s childhood experiences; it gives credence to the complex nature of children’s memories and feelings. Childhoods aren’t all color-filled flashbacks of playing in the neighborhood park. Sometimes, it’s memories that unlock some of our most repressed emotions. It’s hard to remember that our fathers and mothers are as fallible as we are.
I find myself thinking about Aftersun more often than not. It passes itself off as a little indie film, but is far richer in meaning – overwhelmingly so at times – than that phrase suggests. Wells digs deep for an unexplored side to father/daughter relationships, one with which I’m not personally familiar but that Aftersun still got me to connect and identify with. Perhaps it’s the combination of getting close to my 30s, lacking the same connection with my father, and feeling a yearning toward motherhood. Aftersun’s universality lies in its humanity and the grace we forget to give to our parents when we’re growing up.