Charlotte Wells’s debut feature film, “Aftersun,” is emotionally profound and authentic in its craft. The film effectively captures the pain of lost time and the hopelessly overwhelming desire to understand a long-lost person. Wells brilliantly explored the father-daughter relationship through a trip to Turkey. Sophie went to Turkey with her father when she was 11, and she had innumerable fond memories with him while staying at a cheap all-inclusive hotel. But as an adult, when she visits those memories, she realizes that her father was emotionally broken and needed a shoulder to cry on. She was too young then; she perhaps sensed that all was not well, but she was not capable of completely understanding her father. Now, as an adult, she realizes what her father went through, and she only hopes to hold him close.
Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
“Aftersun” begins with a Handycam video in which Sophie asks her father what he imagined her to be at the age of 11. It is established that the film is mostly from Sophie’s perspective, both as an eleven-year-old and as an adult. The adult perspective is her looking back at the memories and imagining what her father might have experienced during that time. Sophie stayed with her father at an all-inclusive under-construction hotel. The room was a tiny one; Sophie slept on the queen-size bed while her father settled in a cot. Sophie’s happiness meant the world to Calum, and he wanted her to enjoy every minute that they spent in Turkey. As Sophie fell asleep, Calum stepped out onto the balcony and smoked a cigarette. It was the only time he could spend all by himself, and with a sense of peace, he swayed to an inaudible rhythm.
Calum is a thirty-something father, and even though he had separated from Sophie’s mother, he continued to maintain a healthy relationship. “Your mother is family” is how Calum describes his relationship with her. When Sophie was younger, she had hoped for her parents to be together and was elated to hear the word “engaged” out of context. Though now, as an eleven-year-old, she had no such expectations, but she struggled to understand why her parents exchanged “I love you” even when they were not really in love. While Sophie might not have completely grasped what her father was going through during the trip, she had a profound understanding of the world and a strong emotional connection with him. She beautifully put into words how often she would look at the sky and feel a sense of reassurance knowing that her father was living under the same sky. Even though they were mostly apart, by looking at the sky, she experienced a sense of closeness with her father.
The turkey trip was not just significant from the aspect of the father-daughter relationship but also because it was during the trip that Sophie started to come of age. She recalled how teenagers were discussing their sex lives while she was in a bathroom stall. Sophie felt she was too old to hang out with the kids at the pool, but at the same time, she struggled to completely understand or be a part of a teenage group. She looked at the teenagers with awe as they made out and partied at night. This was a world she had not taken a close look at, and she developed the desire to grow up and become independent, just like the young adults she met. While Sophie tried to figure out the newness that came with growing up, Calum struggled with his own demons, which at times became too difficult to take control of.
‘Aftersun’ Ending Explained: Did Sophie Get To Meet Her Father In The End?
Throughout the film, we never get to know what exactly Calum was suffering from, but with the bits and pieces shown and discussed, we form a rough idea about the cause of his suffering. When Sophie asked Calum how he had spent his eleventh birthday, he mentioned that nobody in his family remembered that it was his birthday. His mother was angry when he reminded her and made his father drive to a toy store to get him something. By capturing Calum’s reflection on the television set, Wells hints at the complexity of the character and the distance that exists between the audience and Calum. His childhood was not a pleasant one; we can sense that he was neglected. He expressed how, after leaving his hometown, he never felt like he belonged there anymore. Edinburgh was where he grew up, but he could not relate to the people or the place. He prefers living in London and hopes to rent a house there with his business partner, Keith. While he did seem unsure about his business venture, he found comfort in dreaming about having his life together and renting a flat right outside London where Sophie could have her own room and visit him time and again. Even though he was suffering financially, he always tried to conceal his troubles. But as a little girl, Sophie understood her father’s condition and apologized to him when she lost the expensive glasses, he had bought to use underwater. Calum was taken aback; he had always believed that he was successful in hiding his troubles from his daughter. As a father, he did not want Sophie to think less of him because of his financial constraints. When Sophie was not around, he would cry out of despair. He tried ways to deal with his depressive state of mind; he carried books on meditation and Tai Chi on the trip and even practiced Tai Chi whenever he found the time or quietness for it.
One night, he and Sophie had a disagreement. She wanted to sing karaoke with him, but he was not confident enough to go onstage. Later, Calum suggested Sophie take music lessons to nurture her interest, but Sophie expressed her frustration with her father by stating how he always made promises about things he did not have the money for. While Sophie might have said it out of childish disappointment, it was heartbreaking for Calum. Even though he was destroyed on the inside, he managed to smile and decided to go to their room. Sophie chose to stay on the hotel grounds for some time. Her comment troubled Calum, and he found it difficult to live with himself. He walked into the sea to drown his frustration and melancholy. He was a young father who perhaps never really planned to have a child in his 20s. He was compelled to become responsible, but he struggled to keep up with it. He had neither a satisfying personal life nor a successful professional life. He was drifting from one job to another, trying new things without knowing if they would ever work or not. At one point in the “Aftersun,” he even mentions how he never thought he would make it to 30 and that he could never imagine being 40. It was only because of Sophie that he returned from the beach to the hotel room that night. She was his reason to not completely give up, to return and carry on with his responsibility.
When Sophie shared with him how she kissed a boy the previous night, he expressed how he hoped for Sophie to share with him details about her personal life—be it the boys she chose to date or the drugs she indulged in taking. He added that he had done it all so she could too, but she needed to share it with him. Even though this is an intimate conversation, visually, we stay far from the characters. It is almost as if we give the characters a moment of privacy or secrecy, the same secrecy that Calum promises Sophie. From this conversation, we also get a sense that Calum might have had a colorful young adult life, but maybe he never had someone to look up to, share his mistakes with, or advise him and help him get back on the right track. He wanted to become that person for Sophie—someone she could trust with all her secrets, someone who would not judge her and help her make sound decisions.
Their holiday came to an end, and Sophie remembered how her father had the broadest smile as he danced to a piece of music. The distance between the father and the daughter is encapsulated in a rave party where adult Sophie catches glimpses of her father. She walks up to him, but she cannot see him in his entirety. She had a lot to say, indefinite reasons to be angry about, and the aching desire to hold onto her father a little longer. But he slipped away from her. Sophie stood in the dark room, unable to grab hold of her father as she watched him fall. As an eleven-year-old, she did not know that would be the last dance she would have with her father. It seemed as if she could still feel the warmth of the last hug before leaving. She would have held him a little longer if she knew what the future had in store.
As an adult and a mother, Sophie now knew what it was to be a parent. She realized what her father must have gone through during that time, and she wished that she could have been there with him and helped him. The dark, rave room represents the darkness that overwhelmed her father. In the end, we watch him walk into that room after leaving Sophie at the airport, indicative of how it eventually consumed him. Even in the darkness, Sophie hoped and imagined that her father was happily dancing to a rhythm. She held onto the memories of her father through the videos they had taken during the trip and the carpet Calum bought in Turkey. After growing up, most of us realize how our parents were figuring out their lives when we were little. The pressure of being a parent, of knowing what the next step is, of not being a disappointment, is such that their lives as individuals are completely lost. Only after growing up does, one understands the other side of the story. Sophie realized how broken her father was, yet he pretended that his life was in order.
“Aftersun” is one of those films that lingers long after you have watched it. Frankie Curio is extraordinary as young Sophie and Paul Mescal brilliantly depict the complexity of Calum’s character. It is exciting to think of Charlotte Wells’ future endeavors after this promising debut.
“Aftersun” is a 2022 Drama film directed by Charlotte Wells.