“Aftersun” is the most poignant and sensitive portrait of parenthood, depression and grief that I have ever seen.
The movie follows a grown-up Sophie as she recalls her last vacation with her father, Calum. Sophie, for the majority of the movie, is a precocious 11-year-old who is oblivious to the private emotional struggles of her father. Real and imagined memories of the past, spliced with nostalgic home videos and haunting visions of her father, subtly shine a light on how we write and re-write grief and loss into our family histories.
“Aftersun” has been nominated for a smattering of awards, including at the Cannes Film Festival and the BAFTAs, mostly for its excellent director, Charlotte Wells, and leading actor and recent Oscar nominee, Paul Mescal. Mescal works perfectly to the film’s strength — melancholic restraint — as he plays a struggling single father who wants to shield his daughter from his problems. Mescal’s on-screen chemistry with the incredibly talented 13-year-old Frankie Corio is the beating heart of the movie.
Even though Calum can hide his depression from an 11-year-old Sophie, he can’t hide it from an adult Sophie and, therefore, the audience. Sophie revisits her memories of the vacation and begins to fill in the gaps. An exasperated comment to her dad about “not being able to afford singing lessons” becomes more gutting — and you can see it on Mescal’s face. Even though the memories of the vacation are overwhelmingly positive because Sophie remembers time with her father fondly, we get terrifying (and imagined) flashes of Calum’s despair: him sobbing by himself in their hotel room and jumping into the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the night.
The film is subtle and understated, guiding you through emotion without forcing you to process anything. Objectively, nothing happens. A father and a daughter spend a wonderful vacation in Turkey together. The daughter remembers it after her father is gone. And yet, I was completely a wreck at the end.
“Aftersun” ends in a scene that will forever change the way I listen to Queen and David Bowie’s hit single, “Under Pressure.” As a young Sophie dances with her dad in Turkey, an older Sophie is searching for a vision of her (frozen-in-time) dad. As the music rises in a crescendo, young Sophie hugs her dad and old Sophie loses him in the crowd. Her memory of him becomes more real than he is.
I was in tears because I was remembering, too. Memories of my mom came flooding back to me: her doing makeup in the master bathroom, her hitting a bullseye with a bow and arrow, her driving me in a cool car after school… Some things I still can’t remember. Some things I never knew about. I saw the film two days before the ten-year anniversary of my mother’s suicide, and it hit like a sucker punch.
“Aftersun” captured my anxieties about outliving my parents and being left with nobody to lean on. It made me rethink everything I had ever said to my parents. It reminded me to be more gentle with the people who raised me. But most importantly, it reminded me that parents are fallible creatures and that forgiveness is a virtue.
Starring: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio
Director: Charlotte Wells
If you like: “Lady Bird,” “Before Sunrise”
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5
Contact Claire Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org