Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun is poised with mystery. Set during late summer at a resort in Turkey, eleven-year-old Sophie (Francesca Corio) and her perceptibly young and single father (Paul Mescal) spend the finite days of a holiday playing with a miniDV camera, swimming, and eating. Pitched to their mostly languid routine, Sophie’s temperament with her father is continually sweet, easy. Calum is less consistent. Leaning into an archetype of a young and unprepared father, his paternal affection is clear and demonstrative, though it is often succeeded by questionable and unsettling erraticism. He leaves Sophie alone to navigate the resort by herself, relying on the good faith of strangers. Because of Calum’s unpredictability and parental errors, Sophie’s experience segues between repose and unnerving vulnerability, even if she herself fails to register her situations as threatening.
Sophie moves through the resort (and film) like a roaming camera, closely observing those around her. She looks up and marvels at the minuscule windsurfers moving impossibly through the sky. In their hotel room, she delights at their miniDV camera projecting, in real-time, her image across the surface of a television screen. Elsewhere, she is closely tracked by the watchful, parental gaze of the camera’s eye. As the narrative unfolds, its framing is revealed; in the present day, Sophie is an adult revisiting the footage from this holiday. In both timelines — which are starkly, diametrically opposed — Sophie’s occupation of either side of the camera is symbolic of her and her father’s dynamic; she should be secured by her father’s protective gaze, though the roles are mostly reversed. One night, after being locked out of their room for hours, Sophie finds her father asleep and naked in her bed. She covers him with the bed sheet and goes to sleep.
As the tone of the film drifts between security and insecurity — Sophie wanders into various situations with older kids — Aftersun offers nuanced and bifurcated character studies of both Sophie and Calum, accentuated by the film’s stylistic depictions of childhood memory. Indeed, the narrative comprises moments Sophie presumably remembers with unrelenting intensity. Presently (via revisiting old footage) and retrospectively (as the film essentially relives her experiences), Sophie takes on the role of an onlooker, an outsider to the world she inhabits. The motif of Sophie holding a hand-held camera and filming her father becomes a metaphor for her spectatorial position throughout the film, and the space between Sophie as an adult looking back on her younger self.
Adding to the sense of mystery that glazes even the most mundane events, the timeline is surreally intercut with scenes from inside a nightclub, showing figures dancing beneath flickering strobe lighting. Between the sprawl of bodies, we see glimpses of Calum, at the same age as in the present timeline. We also see Sophie as an adult, reaching out for her father. These hallucinatory nightclub fragments are reminiscent of Lynne Ramsay’s dazzling Morvern Callar (there are other allusions to female Scottish filmmakers, note the appearance of a Margaret Tait book in Calum’s possession). In both Aftersun and Morvern Callar, anonymity and darkness are conceptualised; club sequences serve themes of obscurity and illegibility. In Aftersun, these themes are further refined: they demonstrate the difficulty in understanding the cavernous mind of a parent, no matter how closely you look.
Charlotte Wells’ exceptional debut succeeds in crafting an at once splintered and tender portrayal of a father-daughter relationship, one that ripples against a pellucid and otherworldly backdrop of a holiday resort — indeed, holiday resorts, themselves a kind of miniaturised world, are especially surreal to a child. In light of this, no scene, however apparently tranquil, is superfluous to the film’s emotional currents. Even the seemingly quotidian early days of their trip precipitate Calum’s later impulses and actions; during their first day, Calum encourages Sophie to get to know another family, as though preparing for if something were to happen to him. As the viewer journeys through the story, the actions of characters are retroactively inscribed with meaning. Pieces click into place. It is a tale of gradual clarification.
The title refers to Sophie and Calum’s nightly ritual of applying aftersun to each other’s faces. This ritual becomes a marker for the passage of time — a symbol of the finitude of a holiday and of ageing itself. Visually, it’s a gesture of familial tenderness, an image of mutual care between parent-child in the most physical sense; the healing powers of touch, skin to skin; one person split between two. Thematically, it refers to the twilight of childhood, the rippling of one’s formative experiences and the uncanny consolation in looking back, looking closer — an appropriate title if any.