October 23, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Charlotte Wells
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Turkey in 1999, and briefly in the United Kingdom in 2019, the dramatic film “Aftersun” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Middle Eastern people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Through home movie footage, a Scottish woman looks back on the last childhood vacation that she took with her single father in 1999, when she was 11 years old and not fully aware of his personal demons.
Culture Audience: “Aftersun” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching a well-acted dramatic movie that doesn’t tell a straightforward narrative but trusts the audience to piece together the meaning of the film.
It’s best if viewers know up front that “Aftersun” is mostly a series of “slice of life” flashback scenes shown through videos taken during a family vacation in Turkey in the 1990s. What’s more intriguing is the melancholic mystery behind these flashbacks. The story is told in fragments, so viewers who have the patience and curiosity to figure out what the movie is trying to say will be emotionally moved by the quietly devastating implications of why these home videos are on display. “Aftersun” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, and has since made the rounds at several film festivals in 2022, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.
“Aftersun” is a boldly unique feature-film directorial debut from writer/director Charlotte Wells. Most filmmakers telling a flashback story with an adult looking back on childhood memories would make the predictable choice of having the adult narrating the story in a voiceover. “Aftersun” doesn’t do that. The adult who’s doing the reminiscing is not at the forefront of the story, almost as if she wants the happy childhood memories that she’s conjuring to overshadow the sadness and vulnerability that she is feeling now.
In the production notes for “Aftersun,” Wells says that the movie was inspired by an experience she had when she was looking at childhood photos of a vacation that she took with her father, and all the memories that came flooding back about this vacation. However, Wells says that “Aftersun” is not an autobiographical film. The movie has something to say about anyone who has experienced looking back at a cherished moment in time with a loved one that turned out to be the last time being with that loved one.
The beginning of “Aftersun” shows video footage a 11-year-old Scottish girl named Sophie Patterson (played by Frankie Corio, also known as Francesca Corio) making a home video of herself and her single father Calum Aaron Patterson (played by Paul Mescal) while they’re on vacation together in Turkey. It’s 1999, and Sophie has a very good relationship with her father, even though she doesn’t see him as often as she would like.
Throughout this trip, Sophie is usually the one filming with the video, but Calum also does some filming too. Other times, the video footage scenes are just recreated memories of the adult Sophie (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall), who is seen in the movie occasionally looking sadly at these old videos that she took 20 years before. Why is Sophie looking so glum? Those answers aren’t obvious, but they are hinted at in fleeting glimpses throughout the flashback scenes.
In the footage shown in the movie’s opening scene, Sophie states her age and jokes to her father that he’s 130 years old. Calum is actually 30 years old, but he looks young enough to be mistaken for Sophie’s older brother, which occaisonally happens during this father/daughter trip. Sophie lives in Scotland with her unnamed mother, who is never seen or heard in the movie. Calum moved to England an unspecified number of years ago. (“Aftersun” was filmed on location in Turkey and the United Kingdom.)
It’s unclear if Sophie’s mother and Calum were ever married, but their breakup happened long-enough ago that Sophie has gotten used to living apart from Calum. She knows about some of the women whom Calum has been dating, and she openly discusses his love life with him. Durng this vacation, Sophie asks Calum what happened to a woman he was dating named Claire. He matter-of-factly tells Sophie that the relationship is over because Claire decided to get back together with a previous boyfriend. Calum seems disappointed by the end of this relationship, but not devastated.
Sophie is a naturally curious child. She asks Calum why he still tells Sophie’s mother, “I love you,” even though they’re not a couple anymore. Calum answers that it’s because he still considers Sophie’s mother to be like a family member. Sophie also teases Calum when she mentions one of her female schoolteachers, and Calum admits that he remembers this schoolteacher because he thinks she’s pretty.
Calum and Sophie are staying a middle-class resort in Turkey, where most of the resort’s other guests are also white Europeans. Many of them are families who have underage kids. The home videos show that Sophie ends up hanging out with some teenagers, who are impressed with her skills at playing pool.
Sophie also has a mild flirtation with a boy close to her age named Michael (played by Brooklyn Toulson), whom she first meets when they play a race car simulation game together. Michael initially acts like a brat with Sophie, but later she notices that it’s all an act, because he’s attracted to her. When Sophie and Michael are alone together at a public swimming pool, they kiss each other for the first time.
Viewers who look beyond the surface can see the signs that this vacation is not the fun-loving getaway that it might first appear to be. At first, Calum seems to be a loving and attentive father. There are moments when he shows some impish qualities, such as when he and Sophie are watching a singing performance while having dinner at the resort, and Calum comes up with the idea to harmlessly throw food toward the stage and quickly run away like pranksters. Calum also appears to be interested in spiritual wellness, since he’s avidly practices tai chi (which 11-year-old Sophie misidentifies as martial arts) and has many self-help books about inner peace and personal enlightenment.
Early on in the movie, Sophie tells Calum how she copes with not being able to see him as often as she would like. She explains that she sometimes looks up into a sunny sky and thinks about if he is looking up at the sky too, wherever he is. Sophie says to Calum, “We’re both underneath the same sky, so we’re kind of together.” As soon as Sophie says that, it’s easy to know why this movie is called “Aftersun.”
Eventually, the cracks begin to show in this seemingly idyllic vacation. First, there are signs that Calum is living beyond his means but is too embarrassed to admit it to Sophie. When he and Sophie visit a carpet shop, he tries to pretend that he can afford the merchandise, but they eventually leave without making a purchase.
Later, in a pivotal scene, Sophie and Calum are watching some other people at the resort doing karaoke. Sophie defies Calum’s wish for her not to get up on the stage and do a karaoke performance. She goes on stage anyway and sings a very off-key and stiff rendition of R.E.M.’s 1991 hit “Losing My Religion.” Something about the song’s lyrics triggers Calum, but it’s not quite obvious at first.
After the performance, Calum tells Sophie that he can pay for her to get singing lessons if she wants. Sophie is slightly offended and asks him if that means he thinks she’s a terrible singer. Calum says no, but Sophie snaps at him: “Stop offering to pay for something when I know you don’t have the money!” Calum is stunned into the silence and seems deeply hurt by this comment.
After that karaoke performance, Calum is seen by sobbing by himself. And there’s a time on the trip when Sophie goes back to their resort room and finds Calum fully naked and sleeping face down asleep on his bed. The implication is that he’s passed out while drunk.
Earlier in the movie, there’s a more subtle sign that Calum might be abusing substances, or at least is on some type of medication, when the video footage picks up the off-camera sound of Calum opening a bottle of pills. Calum also has a cast on his right arm during this vacation. How he injured is arm is never really explained, which implies that he doesn’t want to talk about it.
The movie also reveals that Calum is perhaps haunted by an unhappy childhood. When Sophie asks him what his birthday wish was when he was 11 years old, Calum seems uncomfortable answering the question. However, Sophie asks him again, so he tells her that no one remembered his birthday when he turned 11. He tells Sophie that when he reminded his mother that it was his birthday, she got irritated and told Calum’s father to take him to a toy store to buy a birthday gift for Calum. Calum says he chose a red phone as his toy.
The movie has some scenes that are not video footage but appear to be a montage of the adult Sophie’s memories speculating that Calum was spending some time at nightclubs during this vacation while Sophie was asleep. These nightclub scenes show Calum on the dance floor, with strobe-light effects, and are filmed like fever dreams that mix the past and the present, since the adult Sophie is seen in these visions. There’s a particularly revealing sequence of this “nightclub fever dream,” with David Bowie and Queen’s duet “Under Pressure” playing on the soundtrack, where the adult Sophie shows some anger at her father.
Viewers should not expect to find out much about the adult Sophie. There are brief hints of of what her current life is like as a 31-year-old in 2019. She’s in a live-in relationship with a woman, and they have an infant son together. And whatever Sophie’s memories are of her father, they are bittersweet. It’s not said out loud, but the emotional tone of the film is that this vacation in Turkey was the last time that Sophie and her father were together.
“Aftersun” is not the kind of movie that will please people who want a more traditional narrative structure for a movie that relies mostly on flashbacks to tell the story. Some viewers might get bored at what seems to be a compilation of meandering home video footage. However, observant viewers will notice that in order to fully appreciate the story, it’s about understanding that this footage is being looked at by an adult Sophia to make some sense of what happened to her father, to see if there were any clues that she missed in the video footage that she took back in 1999.
Mescal and Corio give riveting and believable performances as father and daughter Calum and Sophie. There’s nothing that looks fake or contrived in their depiction of this relationship, which is filled with love, tenderness, a little bit of mischief and some underlying tension that is sometimes expressed and sometimes left unsaid. In other words, it’s a lot like many parent/child relationships, but the relationship that a 11-year-old girl has with her father is usually not explored as the central story in a movie.
One of the other standout qualities of “Aftersun” is a nostalgia-driven soundtrack of well-placed pop hits from the 1980s and 1990s. They include Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” from 1997, Los Del Río’s Macarena” from 1993, and Blur’s “Tender” from 1999. Each song enhances the mood intended for the scene and doesn’t come across as “needle-drop shilling” for the movie’s soundtrack.
“Aftersun” is not a movie that’s filled with big, dramatic, emotional scenes. The story shows that much of life’s biggest lessons are not necessarily “in your face,” but are presented as subtle clues that a child might not be old enough to fully understand until adulthood. The storytelling of “Aftersun” also takes this subtle approach and offers a quiet commentary about appreciating loved ones while they’re still alive and being aware of the not-always-obvious signs that someone might be crying out for help.
A24 released “Aftersun” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. The movie is set for release in the United Kingdom and Ireland on December 18, 2022.