Eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) loves her dad. This much is objectively and totally true — apparent in the way she rests herself on him comfortably, happily lays with him all day in the Turkish sun at their cheap holiday hotel, and organizes a group singing of “happy birthday” to surprise him at the mud baths. Calum (Paul Mescal), Sophie’s young father, just now cresting thirty-one and sometimes confused as her brother, also very much loves his daughter. This much is objectively and totally true — apparent in the way he carefully applies sunscreen to her repeatedly each day and the way he runs aloe toner on a cotton pad across her face each night; in the way he creates little plans for them with the little money he has, desperately clings to their limited time together; in the way he cannot resist quietly and tenderly tracing her eyebrows and nose in the evenings with the tips of his fingers. One of the great delights of Aftersun is its presentation of the joy of not just being loved by your father, but tangibly cared for by him— his pulling off of your little shoes, his tucking you into bed, his making sure you’re getting your three square meals.
Aftersun, written and directed by Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, is a practice in memory, in the way that remembering does not exist in a vacuum, but instead adjusts to newer, more difficult understandings and contexts as we age. How your father must be perceived as perfect and right in childhood because he must be, because you need him to be, and as you grow he must instead become a full, total human. While the majority of Aftersun is from young Sophie’s point of view, we also get flashes of her father’s inner, full, human self, and we get flashes of an adult Sophie — which acts as a signal that, when watching scenes from the Turkish holiday, we are not necessarily present at the time of the event, but instead looking back at it through the lenses of adulthood, parenthood, and the understanding that our parents are themselves humans who have inevitably both offered us care and failed us, sometimes in unison. The flashes of seeing her father as he truly and fully was — someone with an inexplicably broken wrist that he can’t remember breaking and secret cigarettes and some combination of rage, self-hatred, and longing for a different life than the one he has bubbling within him — appear to Sophie in her twenties, between moments with her own partner, her own baby, and the bits of video camera footage she has from their trip.
Of the vast amount of coming-of-age films (a particularly rich and iconic cinematic practice of mining memory) there is a dense subsection dedicated to the uncomfortable, maybe even horrifying, process of realizing our parents are, in fact, full-fledged humans — from Lady Bird to Back to the Future to even Spielberg’s newest The Fabelmans, it is clear that this is an experience that plagues us culturally. Aftersun instead encapsulates the preface to this experience — not so much the adolescent realization that your parent is a complex human, but the childhood realization that your parent has lived a life at all outside of you, and that you, too, are beginning to yearn to live a formed life of your own, far away or abstract as it may be.
Sophie is younger than our usual adolescent coming-of-age protagonists. She is on the early precipice of adolescence at eleven years old, in a way that creates a sort of impossible to describe, fresh, unspoken dynamic between her and her father. The kind of dynamic that has him pleading that the hotel give them two separate beds, has him insistently teaching her self-defense moves in the hotel rooms in case she is ever “attacked.” Sophie, in her insular, just-piecing-it-together, world, cannot tell him what she is thinking of as she quietly stares at teen couples making out, or at a boy applying his girlfriend’s sunscreen — suddenly, she is insisting on putting her own, though her little hands can’t reach her own shoulders.
Aftersun is textural. We look up into the sky, or down into the ocean water, with Sophie and her father, and it’s vivid in the way a child’s mind is when forming a pivotal memory (and the pivotal memory is simply being there, it is an impactful trip for Sophie only because it is special to be with her father — no great, tragic, or incredible plot point occurs).
So much of Aftersun is unspoken, untouched upon, instead often illustrated through the film’s stunning and detailed composition — a particularly incredible shot in which Calum recounts his own miserable eleventh birthday to a quiet, uncomfortable Sophie (the horror of hearing that your father was not just a child, but was a child who was once wounded, or sad, and all you can offer as comfort is that it sounds like he picked a nice toy that year) is presented partially through a mirror, partially through their reflection in a turned-off television screen. As Sophie listens to her father explain his own parents’ cruelty, we see them only through a collection of disjointed reflections, with a stack of Calum’s books by the TV — books on tai chi, on computer programming, on how to meditate — all grasps at visions of a different, better, settled version of himself, a different someone who doesn’t have to scream and sob during a brief moment of respite without his daughter on their vacation, a different someone who, when Sophie says that she feels down and asks if her father ever feels the same, doesn’t spit at his own reflection in the mirror, maybe has an actual helpful response.
Aftersun is spacious; it’s uncomplicated only in storyline, but dizzyingly rich, complex, and successful in the experience it seeks to portray. It is told with a skill and precision that allows for so much to be said in little slices of memory that may appear specific, but bleed into a feeling so well-known for so many on a level beyond explanation. Sophie and Calum sometimes meet in an imagined, pulsing, strobing dance floor that sits in a space in older Sophie’s consciousness. There, Sophie both moves toward her father and is repelled by him, clutches at him and screams at him, cries on him and listens longingly for his heaving breath. There, on that psychic dance floor, sits a truth about existing as a daughter who loves her father desperately, a father who loves his daughter desperately, and the immense depth, complication, tangles, and beauty that sit inherently in that relationship, that I am not certain I have ever seen portrayed so stunningly before.