Aftersun

(This review contains spoilers)

In Charlotte Wells’ debut feature Aftersun, the father-daughter chemistry between Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio is utterly convincing, astonishingly natural. Mescal is peak young dad; caring, embarrassing, at times overbearing. He teaches his daughter self-defence tactics with an endearing earnestness that makes it impossible not to empathise with him. The young Corio plays Sophie, a girl on the cusp of adolescence, on holiday in Turkey with her dad. While the latter encourages her to find playmates by the pool, Sophie’s attention flits more towards those older than her, teenagers already experimenting with sex, already drinking. She watches on, curious but not yet of the age to understand or participate fully. The liminality of her age creates an underlying awkwardness. To all appearances she is still a child; she acts up for the camera and finds sweet joy in the small details a true adolescent would only greet with eyerolls. Yet Calum notices the brimming of a new self-consciousness, a burgeoning desire for independence, as his daughter tries to apply suncream herself, wears her bikini top beneath her dress. Sophie is entering a stage of transition; there is a growing disconnect between how Calum sees her and how she is beginning to see herself.

Mescal glows as Calum Paterson. His voice betrays a fragility and a boyish earnestness; at times it seems to quaver with tentativeness. His personality is divided, lustful and loving, yet equally mournful and dejected. In one early scene he stands on the hotel balcony, sneaking a quiet cigarette while Sophie sleeps, dancing gently in the moonlight to his own silent rhythm. An idealist and a dreamer, he is filled with zest. Yet he is also wounded, struggling to balance his complex love for and cutting disappointment with life. This internal tension is evidenced in his purchase of an artisan rug worth over £800. Staring mournfully into its patterns, lying dejectedly across it, Calum seems to seek in this commodity a quality of absolute beauty. That he does not have the money to afford it is suggestive of his reckless attempts to comfort himself in the face of the void. The rug represents everything that lies just beyond his reach. In buying it he seeks to reassure himself, deferring the wider issues he faces and creating new ones with the inevitable financial consequences of his extravagant purchase.

The details of Calum’s mental struggles are drip-fed slowly. We see him doing Tai Chi (“weird slow motion ninja moves”) while Sophie is on the phone with her mum. Meanwhile, his bookstand is piled with meditation how-to’s and poetry. Dinner-time conversations reveal that his life is riddled with failure; he is unlucky in love and flits from one business venture to another, finding little tangible success. Chatting casually with a diving instructor, he sinks into a sudden melancholy: “I can’t see myself at forty. Surprised I made it to thirty.” The significance of this aside is made clear soon enough. Calum is beleaguered by a deep depression that grips him in certain moments with a fearsome intensity. There are hints of an abusive, unhappy childhood. At thirty-one, he feels displaced, drifting – he does not belong in Edinburgh, the city of his accent, the city his daughter feels cheerfully at home in, quietly longing for his presence. In one key scene, Sophie absentmindedly describes feeling ‘down’ as Calum stands before the bathroom mirror. Hearing his own internal struggles echoed in his daughter’s words, he spits violently at the mirror, an act of self-negation and absolute self-loathing.

The dual shifts of Calum’s personality are evidenced in two key scenes, both centring around music. In one, Sophie books them both into doing karaoke, apparently a father-daughter tradition. Mortified, stuck in a depressive episode, Calum cannot find the strength to participate and so, in an act of defiance, Sophie goes alone. What follows is a challenging scene to watch. Sophie looks so young, so vulnerable as she sings ‘Losing My Religion’, a song of disenchantment and doubt, its lyrics reflecting her father’s internal state. Even as she gestures earnestly for him to join her, Calum still will not come. He sits alone, wishing the ground to swallow him up, aware of the surrounding stares of judgment yet unable to do what he knows he should. It’s an excruciating scene, but a necessary one. With the film structured like a series of memories, we imagine Sophie looking back on this scene from adulthood, empathizing with the darkness that grips her father in this moment, a darkness she simply could not recognize at the time. Upon returning from the stage, Calum tries desperately to reposition himself as the caring father by asking if she wants singing lessons. Wounded, from the backhanded insult but mostly from his abandonment, Sophie retorts: “Stop offering to pay for something when I know you don’t have the money.” Her words cut him where she knows it will hurt most, his deepest insecurities lying in his inability to provide, to find success, to make manifest the hopes and dreams he lives with each and every day.

The second key scene reveals the more positive and illuminating side of Calum’s personality, and it is therefore appropriate that this remains Sophie’s enduring memory of him. It comes on the final night of their holiday, when Calum, at his peak, dances vivaciously, unashamedly, to ‘Under Pressure’. He seems in love with life now, beaming ecstatically before his daughter’s embarrassment and amusement, the polar opposite of his former disconsolation. Yet there is something delusional about his joy, something unsustainable, almost manic. As Bowie and Mercury sing, “this is our last dance, this is ourselves”, the audience begins to grasp the now glaring subtext: this is Calum’s finale, his swansong. The music fades to memory, and no time is wasted in cutting to the final goodbyes. It is suitably prolonged, Calum recording Sophie as she disappears onto the plane; a final wave, a final ‘I love you’. The film ends with a heart-wrenching shot of Calum walking down a corridor into the strobed darkness of Sophie’s recurring dreams. Oliver Coates’ devastating strings say everything required. It is subtle, the awful conclusions only hinted at, but it is enough to be an emotional gut-punch.

The film’s sadness is compounded by the aforementioned hauntingly beautiful soundtrack from Coates (see my previous review of his sublime album Skins n Slime). The score registers a disharmony early on, preparing the audience for a sombre ending in some of the very opening scenes. Chilling drones overlay home-video snippets, creating an uneasy tension that builds throughout. We are never in doubt that something bad will happen, the quiet foreshadowing becoming steadily unbearable the more we witness the loving bond these two characters share.

That loving bond, more so than the final implied tragedy, is the key moral of Charlotte Well’s film. It is a work that oozes love, both the joys of heartfelt moments and the unbearable pains of its loss. The title, Aftersun, is an evocative sensorial image of holiday nostalgia, but it also functions metaphorically. Aftersun soothes damages, but it does not heal – healing comes only with time. And so it is with Sophie, rewatching the videos of her beloved dad on the morning of her own birthday, reliving their final days together, this her only means of mitigating for his glaring absence in her adult life.

Aftersun speaks of the mechanisms we use to recapture the lives of those lost and loved. It is a heartrending portrait of loss and memory, a beautiful depiction of the often fraught nature of parent-child relationships, and a love-letter to broken dads everywhere.

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