“Aftersun” is one such coming-of-age film that affects beyond the sensory and the sentimental even. It leaves an effect somewhere through its brilliant minimalist presentation. It is sure to etch itself into one’s memory, much like the vacation trip that the film is about. At the center of it all is the heartwarming relationship between the young father, Calum, and his eleven-year-old daughter Sophie. In fact, the whole narrative is designed around an adult Sophie watching the old videotapes from the vacation during her childhood and remembering the times. In the process, or rather more importantly, she tries to hold on to the memories of her father through these tapes, whose absence aches her to this day.
As a child, Sophie is very excited about their trip to Turkey, and there are multiple reasons for it. First is of course for the holiday to a new country. The scenic coastal parts of Turkey they visit are probably quite different from her native Edinburgh. The second most important factor is that Sophie lives in Scotland with her mother, who has separated from her father, Calum, who lives somewhere else. From one of the dialogues, it seems that Calum has been living in England at present for some time, but despite the two countries not being too far apart, it is not often that the father and daughter meet. Sophie is clearly very fond of her father, and she genuinely loves to spend time with him on these holidays, which they seem to take once a year. Perhaps these trips are the only time a year that Sophie gets to spend a few days with Calum, and therefore her excitement is natural. There also seems to be a third new excitement for young Sophie—digital entertainment and the Handycam camera that her father has brought along.
Director Charlotte Wells has admitted that “Aftersun” is loosely based on real people, and if we are to consider that Sophie represents the filmmaker, then the girl’s interest in shooting videos can be connected to her present occupation. Once Sophie and Calum settle into their all-paid-for hotel in Turkey and gradually mix in with the other guests at the place, Sophie finds other interests too. She is at the age before adolescence, where she is seeing and realizing what teenagers are up to but is not able to experience them herself. Sophie is actually stuck in that weird age gap where kids are too young, and teenagers are too grown-up. She refuses to make friends with the younger children at the pool because she is clearly way more mature than them, perhaps even a little more mature and sensitive than kids her age. Instead, Sophie chooses to hang out with the teenagers, the group where she does fit in some aspects, like her skills in playing pool, but is otherwise still too young. She sees them having fun, which is heavily charged with sexual and romantic drives, as is natural at the age, and Sophie seems eager to grow up and experience such a life. The casual wooing and then kiss that she shares with Michael, who is of her age, is almost like an attempt to live that age, both on her side as well as that of the boy.
The fact that Calum does not usually stay with his daughter shows in minor ways throughout their holiday. The father is extremely loving and nurturing towards Sophie, but he is also cautious of keeping a boundary between himself and his growing daughter, both mental as well as physical, as is evident in his decision to book two separate beds. Calum also keeps certain things about his own life away from the girl. His character is layered with struggles and pains of his own, which are both external and internal. The man seems to have trouble finding professional success or even stability, as he mentions thinking of pursuing some business with a friend at present. Having to constantly be on the move from one job to another has left Calum in a serious financial shortage already in his thirties. But the man wants to keep all this away from his daughter, even though Sophie gets a hint of it every time. Calum does not buy the expensive carpet at first, and he does not say anything to Sophie for losing the expensive diving mask, even though the girl apologizes to him. Calum also considers himself a lost cause when it comes to romantic life, for he seems to have given up on finding love or companionship. Even though he is divorced from Sophie’s mother, he has maintained good relations with her and considers her family, as he explains to Sophie. There are hints that Calum has had some form of depression since a young age. He recalls how his childhood was not very healthy as his parents would forget his birthday and then get angry at him if he reminded them. He has never been able to fit in in at his native Scotland, and as it seems, he has similar problems in other places too.
Without a life partner, too, Calum is truly rootless in some senses, and the only root he desperately holds on to is Sophie. Like Sophie herself, who is filled with aspirations and dreams as an eleven-year-old, Calum also must have had similar dreams for life when he was eleven. But now in his thirties, he remarks that he is really surprised to have reached the age of thirty and cannot even imagine himself turning forty. What perhaps seems to be more difficult for Calum during this vacation is that Sophie starts to see through his efforts to keep his struggles hidden and directly talks about them. Regarding Calum’s failed marriage with her mother, Sophie asks him why he and her mother still say “I love you” to each other at the end of every conversation on the phone. Sophie remembers one time when she was younger, she got excited hearing the word “engagement” while her separated parents were talking over the phone because her young mind believed the two of them would get engaged and married. Perhaps this simple recall on her side also makes Calum think about his failed marriage even more. When the two of them have their biggest falling out in “Aftersun” when Sophie wants the two of them to take part in the public karaoke, but Calum is unwilling, the young girl angrily tells her father to not make promises about things he would not be able to pay for. While Sophie, a child, obviously does not realize the sting in her words, it deeply affects Calum. It is after this conversation, when Calum walks out onto the empty streets of the night and walks desperately towards the sea, that he looks the loneliest. Gradually towards the end of the film, we witness the man breaking down, and his ultimate breakdown follows after Sophie arranges for every tourist to sing him a happy birthday. To an extremely sensitive person like Calum, Sophie’s act of kindness and innocent love seems too overwhelming. It seems Calum’s frustrations and disappointments about himself in life are deeply inflicted by this goodness, and it is almost like he cannot bear to be at the receiving end of such goodness.
Now at present, Sophie is an adult woman with her own partner in life and a baby son too, and it is only now that she is starting to realize what her father has been dealing with. Being a parent really does mean giving up one’s individuality to some extent. Calum had been dealing with this back during their Turkey vacation, and Sophie probably now begins to deal with it too. Sophie had no idea that the last time she would see her father would be on that trip to Turkey, and even at present, she yearns to be with him once again. Although it is not directly mentioned in “Aftersun,” Calum seems to pass away sometime after their vacation, most probably by suicide. To Sophie, there is no way to go back to those times than revisit memories through the videotapes. The whole symbolic scene of Calum dancing at a rave party while Sophie is trying to reach him resembles the daughter’s desperate attempt to get close to her father. The only light source in this scene is the flashing strobe lights of a rave, which can be disorienting at times. The only way Sophie can see Calum here is in momentary flashes, dancing at quite a distance from where she is standing. Perhaps this is how the woman remembers her father, in momentary flashes, only through certain events and particular feelings. Sophie tries walking up to the man, and upon getting close, she pushes him with all her complaints and painful frustrations because of his absence. She then also hugs him close, a shot that is beautifully matched with her hugging Calum during their final dance together back in Turkey. But unfortunately, such a heartfelt repeat of the past is not possible in reality and has to be limited only to the imaginary.
“Aftersun” is definitely a sad film about the loss of one’s loved ones, especially at a young age when things and reasons are beyond one’s understanding. Young Sophie must have been extremely angry and disappointed in her father’s absence from her life or his death, but now as an adult, as a new parent, she probably started to comprehend more about his situation or behavior. Although Calum’s acts and choices are obviously not to be condoned, his emotions and struggles are to be understood. Very poignantly presented, “Aftersun” is about these realizations as well.