Director: Charlotte Wells (UK, USA). Year of Release: 2022
An airport, back in the days of phone boxes, camcorders and package holidays that you book through a travel agent (the late 1990s, apparently). A father and daughter are making their farewells, each telling the other that they love them. The girl passes in and out of sight before finally disappearing. She looks like she’s about 11, he barely old enough to have children. He wil soon be mistakenly identified as her brother.
We go slightly back in time to see Calum and Sophie arriving at their apartment in Turkey. He’s on the phone to reception, politely complaining that there’s only one bed. We don’t hear the voice on the other end, but Calum concludes the conversation by saying “well, if that’s the best you can do”. He tucks Sophie into the bed, and goes onto the balcony for a smoke. From behind, we watch him dancing to music that only he can hear, waving his arm, which is embedded in a plaster cast.
Over the course of the film, Calum and Sophie do the mundane things that people do on holiday – swimming, playing pool, and laughing at (definitely not with) the entertainment which comes as part of the package. In one scene, they throw bread rolls at the yellow coated tour guides who are performing the Macarena, then run off. In moments like this, they are both children, enjoying the freedom of a resort which is remote from their everyday life where they have to follow rules.
At other points, Calum does his best to meet up to his parental responsibilities. He is divorced and, lives near London, while Sophie has stayed with her mother in Scotland. Although Calum seems to be on friendly terms with Sophie’s mother, his contact with his daughter is obviously limited, and he is at pains to ask her to confide in him as she is growing up. He teaches her self-defence and gets frustrated when he doesn’t think she is taking it seriously enough.
One occasion Calum disappears and leaves Sophie on her own. This immediately follows one of the most painful scenes in the film. As part of the resort’s enforced entertainment, there is a karaoke night, where Sophie has registered herself and Calum without telling him first. He refuses to go down, leading her to sing a tuneless version of Losing My Religion on her own. The gap between his parental responsibilities and inability to deal with his own problems are nowhere clearer.
Sophie has a natural relationship with her father, but it is when they are apart that she mixes most with the other holiday kids. Away from his prying eyes, she has her first kiss. The connection and distance between the two is emphasized by a scene that’s in the trailer. When another family arrives at the resort, she doesn’t want to approach the children as they’re kids, and he won’t mix with the “old” parents. Sophie and Calum are bonded, but they are each insufficient for the other.
Every so often the scenes from Turkey are interrupted by occasional glimpses of an older Sophie, 20 years in the future when she’s around the same age that Calum is in the film. Older Sophie is at a rave. The strobe lighting make her vision unclear, but in the distance she sees Calum dancing as he did in Turkey. The film is being shown through older Sophie’s eyes, but she is an unreliable narrator. She is using her old film footage to come to terms with who her father was.
The scenes of Calum and young Sophie are clearly recorded by the Camcorder, but those of Calum on his own are more speculative. They are mainly shot from a distance and/or behind. The Calum that we are seeing is not the one who really existed, but the one Sophie is constructing from memory. At the risk of sounding pretentious – Aftersun is showing us that fictional characters are not just the invention of the author but also the impressions of other fictional characters.
To say that not much happens in Aftersun is not so much a complaint as an acceptance about how things are. This is not a film packed with high drama, rather one which shows a lot more happening beneath the surface than you first notice. As Callum, Paul Mescal oozes the same affable charm that he did in Normal People. But, especially when he is away from Sophie, he is obviously a troubled individual, suffering from some sort of deep depression.
The film finishes with two scenes. One a reprisal of the opening goodbyes at the airport, another of older Sophie looking through her old camcorder videos. We are not explicitly told what happens to Calum after Sophie leaves, and I think the film is wise to leave this open. The most plausible interpretation for me is a suicide that is hinted at in an earlier scene, but maybe he was carrying a fatal illness or maybe just stayed in Turkey. Whatever happened, he and Sophie are now separated.
Many critics have given Aftersun 5 star reviews, calling it a potential film of the year. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is well worth a watch, not least because it is trying to do something different to most films. Aftersun is a film that stays with you after you have left the cinema, and is much more deserving of a second showing than most others. Having said all this, you do need to be in a certain frame of mind to appreciate it – there is more contemplation than car crashes.