Charlotte Wells’s debut feature Aftersun (2022) will shock you to your core and lead you to dig through your personal archive for lost memories. The film follows thirty-one-year-old Calum (Paul Mescal, who was just nominated for an Academy Award in the category Best Actor in a Leading Role) and his eleven-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on their last holiday vacation to Turkey. Twenty years later, Sophie, now a mother herself, looks back at clips recorded on her father’s Panasonic camcorder in an attempt to grasp the fleeting memories of their final time together.
Despite the film’s particular depiction of young fatherhood, there is something universal about Sophie and Calum’s relationship. Sophie’s idealized imagination of who her father once was activates our own nostalgia and pushes us to question the ways in which we attach ourselves to people, places, and objects. Her fantasy encapsulates our desire to romanticize our fleeting memories; our fixation on the ephemerality of adolescence; our longing to be perceived by our parents as precious children. We are prompted to confront the ways we have internalized our parent’s gaze—the ways in which we are conditioned to simultaneously love and criticize ourselves through the eyes of our primary caregivers. There is no better space to provoke these complicated, yet universal affective states than through the portrait of a family vacation.
Although not explicitly stated, Calum’s depression and anxiety is assumed: his impromptu Tai Chi moves, his self-help books, his constant picking at his short nails, his eyes that glaze over as he smiles at his daughter—all these moments betray a sorrow and turmoil inside himself. There is even a scene during which he tells a scuba diving instructor that he is surprised to have made it to his thirtieth birthday—ironically connecting us to a moment when Sophie organizes a group of fellow guests on a mud-bath excursion to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in honor of Calum’s birthday.
Sophie’s adult perception of her father is blurry—for the most part he is glorified, incredibly engaged, and connected to her. They put sunscreen on each other daily and have long conversations that echo their shared youth and accelerated coming of age all at once. Nonetheless, there are poignant reminders, apparent to Sophie in adulthood, that Calum was irritable and rather dissociative at times. While partially tied to Calum’s struggle with mental illness, Sophie’s memory more broadly reflects the grief that arises when we come to terms with the fact that our primary caregivers eventually fall off the pedestals we have placed them on for years.
Frankie Corio’s brilliant performance is well beyond her years. As Sophie, she hovers in the in-betweenness of adolescence by carefully listening in on and observing teenagers playing with the fire that is first love; she outplays two teenage boys in a game of pool; and she shares her first kiss with a boy whom she competes with at the hotel arcade. Watching her play with the camera further emphasizes the film’s interest in metamorphosis. Sophie approaches the camcorder with a sort of authority while simultaneously embodying a childlike curiosity and goofiness. In an interview with her dad, she directs the camera at Calum and jokingly asks, “I just turned eleven, and you are 130 turning 131 in two days. So…when you were eleven, what did you think you would be doing now?” She turns the lens back onto herself to make a silly face. The film’s fixation with age coupled with the ontology of the camera—and in turn the act of photographing—points to the liminal states of life vs. death, artificial vs. real, absence vs. presence, preservation vs. destruction. By immortalizing time, the medium forces Sophie to sit in various conflicting spaces in order to recover, repair, and reclaim mortal memories in adulthood.
Travel and the video camera work hand in hand to allow Sophie and Calum to transcend time and space, two things that are distorted in the depths of depression. Calum spends his evenings playing back the clips he took that day. He pays to get a Polaroid taken of him and Sophie even though he is strapped for cash, and the two of them take photos of each other in the pool using a plastic underwater camera. This gesture of capturing is emphasized by the direction of photography which fixates on reflections—in the water, on TV screens, and in mirrors—revealing an obsession with recording that which is evanescent as an attempt to gain control of time and space.
Because the film is told from Sophie’s perspective, there are few scenes during which she is not present: when Calum drunkenly jumps into the vast ocean in the late hours of the night, when he sobs naked on their hotel bed (his face turned away from the camera), and when he purchases a Turkish rug he can barely afford. Towards the end of the film, adult Sophie is woken up by the sound of her baby boy crying. Her feet swing off the bed and press firmly against the rug her father purchased in Turkey, unfolding the ways in which we project memories onto the tangible objects that, like home videos and photographs, outlive us and continue to physically exist years after we die.
The most invigorating scene takes place on the last night of their trip when Sophie and Calum share a last dance to “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen. Sophie’s embarrassment is overtaken by Calum’s euphoria and is persistently interrupted by a repeated dream-like (or nightmarish) imaginary scene of adult Sophie and Calum dancing and looking for each other at a rave. As she pushes through the crowd, Sophie attempts to get a clear view of her father—to talk to him, to touch him, to dance with him one more time. The rave perfectly encapsulates the complexity of Sophie’s memory of her father. It is a space of inebriated bodies and distorted memories. The place where our emotions are heightened yet numb all at once—where the act of looking for someone in a crowd produces utter loneliness, no matter how many bodies surround us. The place where darkness bleeds into strobe lights and time and space collapse into one another.
Aftersun strikes the perfect balance between ambiguity and attention to detail. Like Sophie, the audience is prompted to piece together memories and fill in the gaps. The past, present, and fabricated details embedded in memory-scapes come together to grapple with the absence that we are forced to sit in when we engage in the act of remembering. Wells allows for joy and suffering, mourning and celebration, grief and acceptance to exist simultaneously. She reminds us that it does not matter if what we see are memories or “actual” experiences because at the end of the day the two are one and the same.