When was the last time you saw your father? is a question that can mean radically different things depending on when it’s asked. It could be as simple as Has your dad gone to the store yet, or Maybe you should give him a call. But it’s also a way of asking How long has it been? Does it still hurt? The difference lies in that last, the shift from recency to finality that can happen in an instant, and the last time becomes the last time.
Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, her debut feature, is about the last time she saw her father, and part of its power is the refusal to define exactly what that means. Set at a Turkish seaside resort in the late 1990s, the movie follows 11-year-old Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio) and her father Calum (Normal People heartthrob Paul Mescal) over the course of an emotionally fraught vacation. Calum and Sophie’s mother have recently split up, and he’s hanging on by a thread, desperate to give his daughter a memorable experience as he struggles with financial strain and apparent depression. Wells has declined to specify exactly which parts of the story are drawn from her life, but she admitted in a post about the film that while most films are personal, Aftersun is “more than even those most,” and pictures of her and her father at the time bear an uncanny resemblance to Corio and Mescal.
Even without that extratextual verification, Aftersun has the feeling of a story plucked from memory, sifted and reordered by time. The first thing we hear over the opening credits is the clank and whirr of a videotape going into a camcorder, followed by an exchange between young Sophie, who’s apparently holding the camera, and her father, who’s on the verge of his 32nd birthday. There’s some loving banter, and then she decides she’s going to interview him, asking, “When you were 11, what did you think you’d be doing now?”
If you’re seeing Aftersun for the first time, you might not catch what happens at the end of this brief preamble, and even if you do, there’s a good chance it will slip away, whether it’s because of the fluid and associative way the film moves through time or simply because by the end you’re too gutted to think straight. But it’s essential to understanding how the movie is put together, and especially to grasping the full impact of its ending, which climaxes with one of the most devastating final images I’ve ever seen.
As Sophie finishes her interview, the image freezes, and as something moves on top of it, we realize that what might have seemed like a flaw in the video footage—the glare of sunlight on the lens, or just the inevitable decay of magnetic tape—was actually the reflection on a TV screen of the person watching it, who we can just barely discern as a short-haired woman. (She’s also visible at the very beginning of the film, although almost impossible to see unless you know what to look for.) She gets up off the couch, moves toward the screen, and then the image jumps, becoming a jagged, pixelated blur. We scroll backward though images that will appear later in the movie—a chess game, a parasailer gliding above the ocean, a pair of legs stretching out toward a swimming pool—and arrive at a particularly poignant bit of tape-slash-memory: Sophie getting on a plane as the camera watches from a distance, playing hide-and-seek around the airport columns, waving goodbye, disappearing, and then popping back out to say goodbye again. She throws up her arm one last time and the tape pauses, as if to stretch the moment just a little further. The last time I saw my father.
We won’t get a clear view of the woman reflected in the TV, played by director and choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall, until the movie’s final act, but she does reappear immediately after that freeze-frame, in the first piece of a sequence that will recur and expand throughout the movie. We’re suddenly on a dance floor, making our way through shadowed bodies as strobe lights flicker, when the camera picks out a woman making her way through the crowd. It seems like she’s looking for something or someone, but the second we get close enough to make out her face, she shuts her eyes, and we cut to 11-year-old Sophie, riding a bus through Turkey with her dad. Eventually, we’ll learn that this is a transition from an adult version of Sophie to her childhood self, navigating through her own memories as she picks through a store of old videotapes, heading toward something it’s painful to remember but worse to forget.
The bulk of Aftersun takes us through Sophie and Calum’s vacation, which is full of the kinds of moments you might commit to a mental photo album: Remember that time we went scuba diving, or ate dinner and ran off without paying? But the movie keeps pulling away from those incidents, lingering in unexpected places. When Calum sneaks out for a late-night cigarette on the hotel room’s balcony, the camera rests on the outline of Sophie’s face in the darkness, and the sound of her half-asleep breathing fills the air. One afternoon, Sophie describes feeling intensely fatigued, so tired that “your bones don’t work,” and her dad glares at himself in the mirror, impulsively spitting on his own image. There’s no indication that Sophie sees him in that moment, but after they leave the room, the camera stays behind and watches his saliva drip down the glass. Did she realize what happened later in the trip, or as she thought back on it over the years? Or is she wandering through her own mind, hanging around the scene after the characters have left, trying to figure out what she could have seen if she’d only known where to look?
Eventually, we get our first real look at grown-up Sophie. The camera tilts up from an elaborate rug—the same one we’ve seen Calum eyeing in a Turkish shop, knowing he can’t afford it and hating himself because of it—and she’s awake in the middle of the night, sitting up as her partner stirs next to her and says, “Happy birthday, Sophie.” A baby cries in the next room, and as Sophie gets up to look in on it, we realize why she’s coming back to these memories at this time. It’s her birthday, she’s a new parent, and she’s about the age Calum is in the movie. Reasons to think back, and to make us worry that she hasn’t seen him since.
Wells plays throughout the movie with the sense that something terrible is going to happen to Calum. He darts across the street and a bus whooshes by, blaring its horn. He stands atop a narrow balcony railing, arms stretched to the sky. He splashes drunkenly into the ocean on a deserted beach, the camera watching as he vanishes into the black water and is gone. But the danger he’s in isn’t physical, which is to say it isn’t something a child can understand. She notices that her dad seems sad, and she laughs at his “ninja moves” when he does tai chi. But she doesn’t notice the stack of books about meditation he’s brought with him, in an attempt to quiet his anxious mind, and she’s not there when he sits on the bed naked and sobbing, a sight Wells only shows us from behind, as if even in fiction, she can’t bring herself to imagine the sorrow in her father’s face.
All along, we keep going back to that imagined discothèque, in brief snatches that last just long enough that we can almost figure out what’s going on. (The perfectly calculated editing is by Blair McClendon.) Pieced together, they show Sophie and her father on the dance floor, her moving towards him, him dancing desperately, eyes open but unseeing, as if he’s trying to escape but doesn’t know what from, or where to go. Eventually, she reaches him, but before she pulls him in tight, she screams at him, and not just with her voice but her whole body. For an instant, they are in each other’s arms, and his face finally breaks, dissolving into sobs we can’t hear. Then he’s gone, stumbling backward into the dark as if the room has suddenly tilted on its side, and we’re falling with him, watching Sophie rise as he goes.
And then it’s time to say goodbye. We’re back at the beginning of the movie, with Sophie getting onto her plane, only now we know it’s her dad holding the video camera, a prized possession he’s been toting around the entire vacation, helping her learn how to use. We’re watching from outside, him with the camera, her goofing around, saying goodbye over and over just for the fun of it. And then we’re inside the footage, seeing through Calum’s eyes as his daughter leaves him behind. Once again the camera breaks free of the screen to show an adult Sophie watching, but this time it pans in a circle, taking in her apartment as it goes. We see the stuff of an adult life: a guitar propped by the TV, a bike with a helmet hanging from the handlebars, a worn table for two in a shaft of sunlight. There’s Sophie on the couch, her father’s video camera at her side. But we keep turning. And suddenly, there’s her dad standing in front of us, in a long airport hallway that stretches back into the distance. He’s holding the camera too, but he’s just watched Sophie leave, and he knows it’s time for him to go. He turns and walks down the hall, placing the camera in his backpack, and as he passes through the doors at the far end, they swing back and forth just enough for us to see what lies beyond them: blackness, and the flash of strobe lights.
In one shot, Wells ties together the film’s three worlds: the present, the past, and the imagined liminal space where Sophie and her father can finally meet, the place in her mind where she’s kept him all these years. She knows what it means to be a parent—the last thing you hear, over a black screen, is her child saying “Mama”—and she’s lived to the point where their stories diverge. She’s finally ready to see him, for the last time.