Aftersun: The Tender Evocation of Who We Were and Who We Will Become

Memories are like sunspots floating in the periphery of the eye. Things you have perceived, known, misconstrued, and forgotten. Faded home movies of what it was like when the camera was on. Footage fills in the holes in our brains, the mental lapses between memory and unmemory, the fragmented photoplay of how we thought it was up against how it really was. We eventually get to know the people we thought we knew in a different way. You see with new eyes the things your old eyes neglected. In the aquamarine daze of the pool, reflected back is life the way we thought we knew it, a mirror held up to the sky, also aquamarine, where some kites float like the dead leaves float in the water. Our memory allows us the serenity of our past but also wants to show us more of it. It wants to develop with us because we have developed so much, and molecularly we are different people now ruminating back on the moments that chiseled away at us until we became this new person.

Reconciling our past offers us freedom in the present. What new truth can emerge from an idyllic beachfront vacation? The littoral breeze from the Mediterranean pulls in new shapes and colors. We cut: minicam; memory; new evocations. The Turkish beach washes in new layers until more and more of the center is revealed, washed over, pulled back out by the tide, and in again. We just have to wait and see what is going on with 11-year-old Sophie and her estranged father. Like the waves, he is in and out of her life, predictable in that he is coming and going and you can time it. This sojourn to the waterside is one last way of showing up before he doesn’t show up anymore. His arm is in a cast. Her mind is curious and full of hormones. Between them, a sensorial mystery unfolds.

The footage continues to unfold in the two expected ways, through the footage captured of the trip and through Sophie’s memories. But then, there are scenes where Sophie isn’t there. This meditation of self has allowed her to see beyond her own perception and reach into her dreams of what her father could have been like. It is an astounding technique of blending memory and new thoughts: a profound recollection of self, sometimes divorced from self, but built upon the empathetic understanding between a daughter and her father. It feels like anything bad can happen regularly, like a dark foreboding cloud hangs over the father, and doesn’t relent and allow him the peace he is so desperately searching for, the peace that Sophie must now be found in her meditations, earning what he couldn’t have for herself.

There is an astonishing poignancy to Charlotte Wells’ direction that feels utterly distinct, an astonishing act for a debut director, who can already so capably surface the depth of her character’s feelings. The hero of the film is the creator’s heart and profound empathy for what she is shooting. Perfect casting lends her a hand. Sophie is rounded out by a remarkable youth performance from Frankie Corio, an eminent force of empathy on camera, so emotionally attuned to the fragmented needs of the filmmaking. Corio plays so easily off of Paul Mescal, as her father, who is also perfect in both showing compassion and withholding so much until he is swallowed by everything lingering out of frame.

The feelings build and build in the scattered reveries of a child’s dreams. Eventually, the wave breaks and gives us what Sophie had to reclaim for herself. It is not a clean snapshot of the past and the puzzle does not fit together. Memory does not work that way and neither do people. It is frantically messy, alarming, so dark with the dread of disconnection, and the possibility of never finding peace. We cut back to adult Sophie sometimes, Celia Rowlson-Hall wears the advancing maturation of the character so well, and we see what she sees now. It is a lens of familial gratitude, not without complications but encompassing in total, the complete experiences of a family. We never get to see Sophie with her mother and it doesn’t matter. We have the family portrait right here. We understand Sophie is her Dad, now, entering motherhood, and reflecting back on what parenthood has stood for in her life.

We wipe our faces of nostalgia and our eyes see what they never could see before. Everything our parents did was for us. We didn’t understand them then. If we could, wouldn’t we just want to nurture them, and show them back the same sort of care, now that we have grown to be either the same people or the people who have learned from their mistakes? Wouldn’t we all reverse course and just go back and hold our old selves and say thank you for who we have become? The sunspots have faded. Now we only see the dark club. Our parents are alone but in the trance of dance. “Under Pressure” plays, David Bowie and Queen, and finally as adults with our own kids, we understand what being under pressure really means. “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance? / Why Can’t we give love that one more chance?”


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