‘Aftersun’ offers a nice rumination for parents and children

What was once just ordinary life can, through the prisms of memory and further experience, seem rather profound. That’s a feeling beautifully illustrated in debut writer-director Charlotte Wells‘s movie After sun (in theaters October 21), a film that considers the past as it was then and as it would come to mean later.

The film is about a father, Calum (Paul Mescal), and his tweenage daughter, Sophie (the remarkable newcomer Frankie Leer) on holiday in Turkey. Sophie’s parents are no longer together, and we get the sense that this is a rare opportunity for Sophie to bond with her father, who lives in London, far from Sophie’s home in Scotland, and is also estranged from something more ineffable than geography. The couple are in an all-inclusive kind of place favored by British tourists, not exactly luxurious, but certainly special enough to make the trip feel important.

Wells observes Calum and Sophie with a close, but unobtrusive, intensity. They chat and joke and swim, they play pool, they bicker, they occasionally drift away from each other for the private time that is often so much needed on a family vacation. Mescal and Corio have a painfully believable bond, a feat of acting and writing and directing that thrives on its modesty. It’s hard not to feel like we’re looking at real life, or at least real life as it was about 25 years ago.

After sun is in a sense about that looking. The film occasionally shifts to grainy home video, as if these are the moments of the journey captured on record and everything else stitched together from memory. All of this is framed by brief glimpses of someone we assume is the adult Sophie, which goes to imply that the whole… After sun is a kind of mind palace journey, a woman working on a memory of a now lost father.

That implication is subtle and abstract. After sun does not bother himself with an ominous omen. Instead, the film silently gestures to a pain in Calum’s center, which is only gently released when he sneaks a cigarette on the hotel balcony, or takes a perhaps ill-advised nighttime dip, or, in a poignant little sequence, on a carpet in a carpet dealer’s pantry, seemingly stretched under a cosmic weight and in need of some sort of existential rest for a brief moment.

Maybe the cast on Calum’s wrist gives some clues as to what’s wrong with him. Or his lightly charged conversation with Sophia about parties and drugs. Whether or not Wells intends to provide such contextual clues, a photograph of Calum subtly enters the picture. He does his best to enjoy his time with Sophie, but the facts of his life, escaping fleetingly into the gleaming Mediterranean, force themselves back.

While all that is happening, Sophie traverses the familiar wilderness of her age. There’s a first kiss, an attempt to assert oneself with some older kids, and a glimpse into the mysterious and alluring world of sex—typical holiday stuff in some ways. That we don’t know exactly where Sophie would lead – although as an adult we do see her with a female partner –After sun doesn’t feel patchy or holding back. Not everything needs to be stated explicitly for Wells’ musings to resonate.

After sun, is therefore a film about inference. What do we do in the audience with the detailed and yet incomplete portrait that Wells draws for us? We extrapolate, we draw lines between ourselves and the characters in the film. We fill the gaps between what we know concretely so that we can synthesize something like real understanding. Just like we do, maybe, if we remember.

However, the film is not just another metatextual exercise. It’s felt deeply, a warm embodiment of a liminal time in life where our views of ourselves and our loved ones come into focus, while somehow also drifting into new confusion. Adult Sophie may have looked back to tell her what this trip with her father really meant. But young Sophie also feels that meaning fervently, in her own way. She is blind to the details of Calum’s carefully monitored adult pain, and yet in all her ambitious efforts to attain worldly maturity she makes room to see her father in a different way, to create some sort of common level for both of them. .

In this way, After sun depicts the active practice of love, the accumulation of allowances and adjustments that become a lifelong project. So the importance of this holiday, maybe Sophie’s last dance with her father, or maybe the beginning of a bitter goodbye. There were at least a few days when father and daughter could experience something together. When, in the midst of all their impermanence, they could find or restore a constant, far from home, in a place almost unmoved by time.

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