“Aftersun” is the feature directorial debut by Charlotte Wells and might very well be the breakout indie film of the year. Clear-eyed in its specificity yet delicately opaque, “Aftersun” follows a father-daughter vacation in Turkey, as seen through the eyes of the 11-year-old daughter Sophie (a miraculous performance by Frankie Corio). She first zooms in on her father, Calum (beautifully played by Normal People’s Paul Mescal), with a video camera and says that she is going to interview him. The film follows that trajectory of interrogation without really answering the questions: Calum is trying to be present for his daughter at all times, but he is also markedly distant in ways that Sophie cannot really understand. It is not quite clear what is going on with Calum, and Wells doesn’t probe into that dilemma to dig out answers. She’s searching for them as she remembers through her memories. Flashes of adult Sophie give us a peek as she confronts Calum in a sort of fragmented hallucination, with a strobe effect so violent that we see her in flashes only. But what is bothering Calum? How has Calum’s parenting affected Sophie? To fill in these questions that “Aftersun” leaves for its viewers to unpack, you will have to watch the movie. It is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year so far. In this piece, let us take a deep look into that dreamlike, fantastic ending that takes place in Aftersun. Major spoilers ahead, so read only after you have seen the film.
‘Aftersun’ Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Film?
Aftersun begins with a playful glimpse of Calum and Sophie in their hotel room and then goes a little back to introduce how the pair has some days together before they both drift their own ways. Sophie has school, whereas Calum will move somewhere for work. They are not allotted the promised hotel room with two beds. They have to do with one for the time being, to which they agree. Aftersun follows both father and daughter as they move from one day to another, sunbathing, swimming, and applying night cream before going to sleep. At one point, Sophie says that it is nice that both of them share the same sky. Calum is caught off guard by her comment and asks what she means by that. Sophie says that even if both of them are in different places, they are under the same sky, so in a way, they are still connected together. This specific comment is certainly the core of Aftersun, which suggests the apparent proximity and distance that a parent shares with a child. Will the child ever know how the person was before they became a parent? As a child grows up to form her own perspective of the world, beyond the observation of the parent, there is a certain understanding that so much of themselves is an echo of the parent. It is an inescapable truth.
‘Aftersun’ Ending Explained: What Does The Last Dance Mean?
On the last night of the vacation, Calum goes to a local pool party and starts to dance casually. Come on, Sophie, he calls. But Sophie is too awkward to dance anyway and doesn’t join him easily. She hugs him tight. This scene directly intercuts to adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) in some sort of a dark disco party, standing in front of Calum as he dances with reckless abandon. Nothing is said out loud, but we get that Sophie has anger towards her father that she cannot really express in words. Perhaps it is his emotional distance, the way he always knew what to hold back and what to say. Under the flashlights, we see glimpses of Calum exhaustedly holding on to adult Sophie, but she pushes him back. The scene cuts to the present vacation. In the end, we see Calum wave goodbye to Sophie at the port through the video camera footage. The film then takes a detour off the room adult Sophie inhabits, slowly revolving around her and reaching the exact spot she had waved her goodbye to Calum. The scene stops as Calum closes the video camera and goes out of the exit door. Beyond the exit door is the same dance floor with flashlights. It suggests the same place where adult Sophie confronts him.
What Is Troubling Calum?
By the time Aftersun gets to this point, Wells has scattered breadcrumbs along the way for us to figure out what is bothering Calum so much. A silly interrogation by Sophie early on reveals unexpected childhood trauma for Calum. He reveals how his mother didn’t remember his birthday, and when he brought it up, he demanded that there were consequences. Calum also practices Tai Chi moves as a sort of coping mechanism whenever he is crowded by anxiety. The physical movement tends to calm him, though it is never directly spelled out. Mescal is haunting in these scenes, as we see Calum troubled by an unknown reason, something that is slowly tearing him apart. He is trying hard to be there for his daughter, and the one evening he is left alone, he loses all sight of himself- by going to the beach and then passing out in the room, fully unclothed. Did he try to commit suicide? Did he stop thinking about his responsibilities? We will never know.
Calum seldom communicates- his presence is marked by a resilient emotional absence. He comments how he cannot imagine himself turning 40, turning 30, and that making it this far is a lot. When Sophie asks him what he is up to, she really is just asking her father how he is doing. She knows that there have been other things that did not turn up well for him. He says that there is a thing going on with a friend in the city, but Sophie knows this is as true as he sounds. Calum is depressed; his sadness reveals itself through subdued body language. He is struggling financially, too- when a man smokes up a used cigarette off the pavement, you know he’s having a hard time. It feels that he has ended up somewhere he didn’t want to be and is still gathering himself to scale what he can do. Sometimes Sophie can be a little nagging, too, as most children are, and that is where Calum draws the line. If she wants them to do karaoke in front of everyone, she won’t be getting his approval. He won’t move; he simply wants to disappear.
How Does Adult Sophie React To Calum?
One of the most striking revelations in Aftersun is that it shows that adult Sophie is queer. She has a female partner. Now Sophie’s queerness is not our priority, but her underlying relationship with her father reveals a lot about how she has turned into an adult. Even on vacation, she is really unable to feel the eagerness towards the boys the other girls are so crazy about. She looks at her father as her only repository of male affection, an aspect that always leaves a huge gap. For Sophie, her father is someone she knows but not fully. There is a distance that ultimately binds them together. Sophie also catches the two boys in the poolside, making out when everyone is away. She doesn’t judge them; instead, she is curious to see how these two human beings are being true to one another only when they are away from everyone’s sight. Does that also mean her father is someone else when he is not a parent? Sophie doesn’t get an answer, and it feels that this vacation was the closest she got to know him as a person, and as a choice, she wants to remember him this way only. Specific yet ambiguous, Aftersun holds the mirror for all of us, showing- not telling, that, in some ways, we can never outgrow the influence of our parents.
“Aftersun” is a 2022 drama film directed by Charlotte Wells.