One of my earliest, most formative memories, is walking through a crowded Butlins. I think it was Minehead, so peak holiday season, but as we squeezed through all the slides, rides, and children’s faces grimey with ice-cream, I suddenly thought to myself: ‘What if I died tomorrow, and then miss out on the rest of the holiday?’ It was my first experience of what I now realize was anxiety, but at least for me, Aftersun is the first movie to ever encapsulate that feeling of pre-emptive, post-holiday depression on-screen.
There’s always that inexplicable heaviness you feel in the last stretch of a holiday, as you feel more conscious than ever of running out of time while trying desperately to live in the moment, and that tone is what underpins Aftersun and helps maintain your focus.
The film doesn’t have a big, dramatic plot or a specific scene that pulls at your heartstrings: it’s just a collection of moments that are elevated in their complexity and angst thanks to the impeccable performances by Paul Mescal (known for his role in drama series Normal People) and newcomer Francesca Corio.
Mostly a two-hander, Aftersun follows a single father Calum (Mescal) and his eleven-year-old daughter Sophie (Coiro) having what you gather is some rare one-on-one time in a gentrified Turkish holiday resort in the last week of Sophie’s summer holidays before school re-starts.
The narrative isn’t entirely linear, as we start at the end of the holiday with Sophie waving goodbye to her father at the airport before we hear the whir of the VHS as the tape rewinds to the start of their trip. If you look hard enough, you can see the reflection of an adult Sophie, staring intently at the screen and not daring to move a muscle, just in case she misses something. Her determination to record the trip on a camcorder is what anchors a lot of the movie, as we see many of the events through her eyes.
But we’re reminded through small details like a frustrated Calum smoking on the balcony amid the sound of Sophie’s snores, his inexplicable injuries, and his back arching, heaving and shuddering with sobs that there’s a lot more going on here than you think.
Most of the exchanges between Calum and Sophie aren’t particularly remarkable — they’re just the usual banter and bickering you’d expect from a father and daughter — but it’s these moments of normalcy, and the fact that Mescal and Coiro are able to ease into a father-daughter dynamic so easily that makes the film feel almost universally relatable.
Throughout the A24 movie, Calum goes to great efforts to hide his depression from Sophie, and most of the time he’s successful at this — but the small details are there: from the stacks of meditation books, to off-hand remarks about how he’s surprised he made it to thirty, let alone forty.
But like every kid, Sophie absorbs and understands more than the adults around her perhaps give her credit for, as she tells her father not to promise things she knows he can’t afford and verbalizes a feeling of depression where your “bones don’t work” in a way that Calum clearly finds painfully relatable, as he spits in the bathroom mirror in disgust at his own reflection.
These small hints about Calum’s mental state, which are further rooted by Mescal’s ability to act not just as someone with depression, but someone whose trying to hide that they have depression, lead you to expect a big, traumatic death that Wells teases by showing a van race past him in the street, or the camera lingering at the ocean where Calum is diving in just a beat too long, but that moment never comes.
For the most part, Calum keeps it together, and on the one occasion where he does mess up — with Sophie left locked outside their hotel room after he gets drunk alone and wanders into the sea — she doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of a situation, despite Calum’s repeated apologies, like water off a duck’s back. So the film treats this event with the same level of seriousness a young Sophie does.
It’s been a big year for traumatic family movies: from The Son to The Whale, but what sets Aftersun apart is that you’re left with fragments that you must piece together yourself. These fragments of memories, symbolism, and a recurring rave sequence where an adult Sophie tries desperately to reach her father quickly make you realise that nothing in this movie is done by accident, and it’s up to us to assess every camera angle, furrow of Calum’s brow, and piece of symbolism to try and understand what’s going on.
The problem is, given she’s recounting a holiday she went on nineteen years ago, Sophie is an unreliable narrator: and we’re reminded of this in shots that show her and Calum back-to-back, separated by a thick wall in the hotel, or in shots where he can quite literally only be seen by a reflection in the mirror or TV.
So, while director Charlotte Wells is a master of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, I wish there was just a little more telling about what was going on with Calum, what happened to him, and how things ended up the way they did. But I realize that ambiguity and the flaws of memory are a big part of this movie, and as is the case with a lot of childhood trauma and grief, we have to live with the fact that we’ll never get the answers we’re looking for.
Why else would an adult Sophie be anxiously re-watching the tape, rewinding and pausing portions to try and analyze any signs she missed, hints, or clues as to why her father ended up the way he did? The film might leave you feeling dissatisfied if you like a neat ending, but maybe that’s the idea: the frustration we feel about the gaps in the film is the same as an adult Sophie feels at the gaps in her own 11-year-old memory, as she was, of course, too young to fully grasp what was going on.
Either way, the final shot of the film, which shows Calum’s mask drop the moment he knows Sophie is out of shot, is a face those living with mental health issues know all too well. As he embarks through those double doors into the glitchy, disjointed rave of chaos, you know that he’s gone forever, and your chest feels heavy: but it’s probably the most beautiful final shot I’ve seen in a drama movie for quite some time.
Aftersun will arrive in theatres and on streaming service MUBI on November 18 in the UK, and is available to purchase on Google Play in the US.
As much a performance art as it is a movie, Aftersun is quietly devastating.