Aftersun review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s a constant obsession with time in Aftersun's quiet yet somber drama. For the 11-year-old Sophie, it’s just a summer vacation with her dad in Turkey. For her father, the 30-year-old and divorced Calum, it’s so much more than that. It’s a last chance to connect with his daughter. It’s that moment when he watches his kid start showing interest in more adult things. It’s that inevitable heartbreak every parent endures when they must let go of their children and let them flourish. These sweeter moments of saying so little and having that aspect of family bonding are treated with serenity and sadness, fully aware that it will soon end.
The framing of Aftersun is unique in how there’s a desire to capture that essence of youth and hold onto it for as long as possible. In the opening scenes, Sophie records footage of her dad as she talks with him about turning 11. She asks her father what his 11th birthday was like. There’s a pregnant pause, a brief moment of unease as Calum remembers that time and searches for the right words. There’s a fear of the past and future within that moment that becomes all the more heartwrenching when Calum later comes clean with Sophie about what his 11th birthday was like.
Paul Mescal delivers a pitch-perfect performance as a father who is both in the moment and terrified of the passage of time. He holds back his tears well while aspects of his past linger in every conversation. Brief glimpses of a club setting blink out of his memories as he struggles to be there for his daughter and keep his distance. Sometimes he stumbles into granting her independence, as when he forgets to give his daughter a key to the hotel room. Sometimes he’s let down gently, as when a pool game goes from being chaperoned to youth only. Sometimes Calum gracefully accepts his daughter’s progression, as when she brings up that she kissed a boy her same age. The little moments of snapping Polaroids and dancing with his daughter become golden memories he wants to preserve in any way.
Calum’s stoic nature around his daughter is equal parts admirable and tragic. You can sense that there’s a part of them that just wants to embrace his daughter and sob uncontrollably but also another part of him that doesn’t want to ruin these simple pleasures. Something as familiar as sitting by the pool and saying very little as he hangs out with his kid are sweet moments that become ambered in a golden silence, where very little has to be said. So many of these little moments of joy combine to make the ultimate departure from the vacation a turning point with tragic farewells. This leads to the unforgettable final shot of watching the footage recorded years later and walking down a hallway to the next chapter of life.
Aftersun is an understated masterpiece by Charlotte Wells. It’s a film that perfectly captures an almost indescribable melancholy that comes with being a parent. It’s not that Calum’s job as a parent ends during this vacation, but a certain period of that relationship dies on this trip. As with many films that deal with existential crises, this film accepts this passing of life with wondrous grace and tearful realization. It’s such an unforgettable encapsulation of viewing a coming-of-age story from the perspective of a parent.