A Father, a Daughter, and Things Left Unsaid – Rolling Stone


Do we ever really come to understand the truths of our parents? Calum (Paul Mescal), the young father of Charlotte Wells’ debut feature Aftersun, is as known as he is unknown. The closer we try to get, the further he and his actions seem to recede. The more we hone in on the banal details of who he is, the more we realize we do not know about why he is the way that he is. Like anyone else, Calum is an iceberg, half-submerged. Everything above water implies some unseen vastness that’s out of sight and out of reach because we were not there for those parts of his life and did not live them by his side. Every parent has a prehistory that none of their children can know. We’re seeing Calum as his daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), sees him. That means that her limits become our limits. And her questions become our questions, of which, it becomes clear, there are many to be asked.

Aftersun, which Wells also wrote, is for the most part a thorough depiction of a brief period in these two peoples’ lives. But its emotional canvas is far more encompassing than this implies. It’s crafted in the mold of adult Sophie’s tenuous, confusing but affectionate double vision: the overlapping lenses of childhood and adulthood, the first-person present tense of a few days spent in her father’s company when she’s younger combined with the wisdom afforded by retrospective distance, by growing up, lingering in her memories, and becoming a parent herself.

On the surface, this is a simple story of an 11-year-old girl and her father taking a brief trip to Turkey for her birthday. He’s a man young enough to be confused for her older brother but, crucially, old enough to feel overwhelmed and, frankly, a bit hopeless over the course that his life has taken to this point. These are nice, matter-of-fact people, not rich, not grandly emotional or overly precocious. Their normalness lends itself to a drama that’s almost absurdly straightforward, a mass of plain details, intimately observed and treated with the utmost gravity, as if Aftersun is going out of its way to traffic in the unremarkable. A father and daughter at a resort. Games of pool, trips to the arcade, karaoke. Boys. Idle chats. Dutiful applications of sunscreen. A handful of life lessons from the father and everyday bits of inquisitiveness from the daughter, whose questions are proof that she’s old enough now to start thinking seriously about the world without understanding it, necessarily. Memories and diaristic rambles get captured on a camcorder.

Much of what happens to these two people probably doesn’t matter to anyone else. Which is precisely what makes it all feel so disarming. We get long, wandering shots sopping up the tiny moments which, when you know someone intimately, feel soul-defining, but which might easily have been missed, let alone remembered, by a stranger. We see Calum at night on the balcony of their shared hotel room, for example, swaying to himself as he steals away from his snoring daughter to smoke a cigarette, all of it captured in a long, slow exhale of a shot which, like so much of what Wells depicts here, nearly deifies the most miniature things. Banality emerges, in Aftersun, as one of the purest love languages available to us. You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder why we’re watching any of this — what it is that makes it worth watching at all. But Aftersun renders the question moot by stoking quiet uneasiness, both in invisible ways, as during the scenes set in Turkey, and in more portentous ways, as during a series of quick interludes set in a club somewhere, with the adult Sophie and her father thrashing away under the strobe lights with a vigor that’s telling us something without at all spelling it out. Even without those moments, something feels off from the very first frames. Sophie and Calum’s trip to Turkey is by and large a series of happy memories. Why do they feel so sad?

There’s an answer to that question; there’s something of a “mystery,” if we can call it that, hanging over this movie. Something happens, or has happened. The when and what remain beyond our reach by the end. This will no doubt frustrate some people. But to reduce Aftersun to this, and to the ostensible clues scattered throughout, is to miss much of the point of why we’re here, alongside the adult Sophie, sifting through these ashes. The drama that Wells constructs, with its gentle ebbing toward and away from conflict, is worthwhile for what it reveals about Sophie and Calum both, but especially about the adult Sophie. Her memories of these events feel symbolic — elevated by what comes later. But they are also subtly sensuous, particular and exacting in their sensations. She is not merely remembering her father, but a time and a place; attention to the latter seems to enable a more thorough understanding of the former. The needle drops sprinkled throughout the movie — REM’s “Losing My Religion,” Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” All Saints’ “Never Ever,” Blur’s “Tender,” Catatonia’s “Road Rage,” even the Macarena — are temporal markers, of course. But look at the way Aftersun uses them, rendering all of it into ambient infiltration, arcade and resort kitsch that feels exactly right. It is not merely nostalgic. Our memories of these spaces are bound up in their blaring, everywhere-at-once noise. None of it — not the songs, not their ever-presence, not the care with which they’re styled into the soundscape of the movie  — feels arbitrary. (David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” appears too, but in this case the effect is far more pointed than ambience.) 

One of the great sparks of Aftersun is in Wells’ ability to bend the seemingly simple form of this drama toward more fundamental ends: away from the pure fact of Sophie’s memories toward the more abstract dilemmas of how and why we remember in the first place and what a film can do to capture that in a first-person, subjective sense. None of which would resonate without a pair of actors whose ties to each other, as characters, justified such a close look. Aftersun lives and dies on the effortless love and familiarity that co-stars Mescal and Corio bring to bear on most everything we see. He as a father withholding some of the reality of his world from a daughter that he loves; she as the daughter on the cusp of becoming a real teenager, questioning and honest enough in these memories for us to believe she’ll grow to become a woman prone to so much probing later in life. 

Sophie’s age is extremely relevant to the story and to what makes Corio’s performance so rich. A child approaching the cusp of young-adulthood tasks each actor with some unspoken reality that each must realize in turn. Sophie is wandering into decisions about herself that she did not know she would have to make. Calum, looking on, realizes that he must, accordingly, adjust. Sophie is beginning to notice herself, in her tomboyish caps and overalls, in relation to girls at the resort who are only barely older than her yet already talking about sex and boys. If his apparent wariness toward older boys is any indication, her father knows as much. A pleasant interaction over a pool table with a pair of teens later spurs an awkward lesson on self-defense from Calum, in case she is ever “attacked,” as he puts it. He’s talking about rape, but he doesn’t say this; he’s thinking ahead to a world that his daughter doesn’t yet know exists.

The power is in Aftersun’s subtle exploration of the reverse of this dynamic. This young father is in the dark, too — about what his daughter knows. Money hovers throughout Aftersun as something of a question. There are minor indications here and there that Calum does not have much of it, little tells that only feel broadly indicative in hindsight. You know a man’s broke when he’s forced to resort to smoking someone’s discarded roach. Aftersun, being told as Sophie seems to remember things, allows Calum go about obscuring his financial reality without letting us in on the details. What’s telling is how much Sophie is able to surmise from the bare details that she gets. It is a symptom of her age that she does not make good on this recognition with grace. She’s a kid, after all. It is not fair to her that these incidents, these bits of ugliness, should be forced to loom so large in her recollections. But they do. Watching them, there’s a pain that’s outsize of the immediate drama before us. Without even needing to spill its guts on every subject, Aftersun manages to color everything we see with the ruefulness of someone who has not entirely forgiven themselves.

Some of this may go to explain the cloud that hangs over this movie, the realities of Calum that outline who he is. In the end, we can only get so close. This proves to be a heartbreaking fact. Aftersun ends and you want more. You fall in love with two people who, only 90 minutes before, were total strangers. By the end, you do not know everything there is to know. But you know what matters. And so the movie ascends, in the way that a movie like this is almost sure to ascend. Here, it counts more than usual, because Aftersun has more to offer than the usual. What it lacks in answers, it more than returns in grace.

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