Aftersun

Susan Tailby
5 min readFeb 26

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There aren’t really words to describe this film, but I’m going to give it a go. Definitely worth watching and definitely deserves its awards. It’s a celebration of struggling good fathers, struggling good men, those who are battling life-long addictions and the wreckage of savage childhoods and also of tweenagers, of children shuttling between separated parents and the 1990s British holiday abroad. It doesn’t fall into smacking the viewer over the head with issues, with blaming and shaming, although it definitely pinpoints things which aren’t right — just a desperate cry of ‘why?’ as memories are sifted.

Calum (Paul Mescal) takes his 10 year old soon to be 11 daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a holiday to a resort in Turkey. Unfortunately the resort is still being built, and their twin beds haven’t yet materialised. Sophie doesn’t want to hang with the ‘kids’, but can’t help seeing nuclear families everywhere. She’s also feisty — playing expertly at pool and competing against a similarly lonely boy on an arcade game. Most of all she’s at that awkward stage of not being a child and not yet an adult, whilst surrounded by older youth having more fun.

She and her dad love and care for each other — he does embarrassing dad dancing and focusing Tai Chi moves in public, she’s enjoying learning how to use a camcorder and does a hilarious ongoing commentary. Her dad is obviously carrying a lot of really painful memories, as well as fighting failure and money issues — there’s a terrible moment when he’s pushed into sharing about his 11th birthday — his parents forgot, his mum violently forced his dad down the shops and he got something. But I wonder if this was what he really wanted (seems like a much younger child’s toy was chosen just to get away from the warfare of the situation). Calum is determined to do it differently — to be a good father — being there for Sophie — no matter what, sunscreening her, encouraging her at school, in talents and skills, in the jokes and having a good time on holiday, the scuba diving. He also loves his ex-wife too, although they are no longer together.

During the holiday Calum begins to fragment and spiral in subtle, but alarming ways. We see his red face and eyes as he downs his third pint in succession; his strong back suddenly becoming incredibly tender and vulnerable as he sobs his heart out; an alarming moment when he won’t do the traditional karaoke with Sophie and he leaves her to hang out with older youth at the resort — is it the song or is it something deeper? Similarly the look of horror and anguish when his birthday is celebrated on the coach visit to an ancient site. And yet this is a man who can celebrate the beauty of Turkish culture, enjoy dancing and the symbolism and stories of a Turkish rug, relaxing on it and enjoying it.

Having fallen out with Sophie about leaving the karaoke, Calum terrifyingly walks down to the beach, straight into the sea. We don’t know if he’ll come out again. The darkness of the scene, in term of matter-of-fact-ness of action and the lighting make it horrific. Sophie gets lost trying to find her room, thankfully finds the boy and enjoys her first kiss, and then via Reception is able to get back into the room again. Only her dad is there, naked and sprawled out on the bed. The inappropriateness really hits you in the gut here — but he’s also not dead — from the previous scene we just didn’t know his intentions. Something is clearly wrong because he has a knock on his shoulder that he can’t remember. Previously he’s broken his wrist from a fall. It’s horrible and really sad at the time, because this is a good father trying to remain one. He apologies, and they enjoy some good father-daughter time, including one of those embarrassing dad dances.

Sophie leaves for the plane home and so does her dad — down a soulless corridor, suggesting final separation. Intercut through the film are adult Sophie at a rave trying to connect with her dancing dad and never quite getting through, trying to understand her father whilst being a mother herself. Adult Sophie doesn’t quite convince — Frankie Corio gives such a vital performance that I can’t quite believe that the subdued, gaping, stunned looking woman is the same person (Celia Rowlson-Hall).

It’s not a sad film, although there are sad themes, such as loss throughout. There are fantastic 1990s Britpop tunes, the boredom of being a British child on holiday, especially a resort holiday; some really sweetly teenager observed moments; the deep sadness of a man who can’t see where his life is going and can’t see himself at 40 — didn’t even think he’d reach 30; someone who is battling himself and yet trying to do the right thing; of a tweeanger becoming aware of herself, her separate identity; of how caring and loving fathers are and of good men being good fathers, the best they can.

My main reaction to this is desperately wanting Calum to access the right therapeutic help so that he can work through the horror of his family life (and of life not working out in general), because he was obviously secretly so fragile and desperately medicating in various ways to manage it, unsupported. But it also challenges us to think about how we think about those battling long term mental health issues, addictions, those young carers, the families and friends of those struggling, the loss created by parents with addictions and the holes and pain left by suicide, and how we often speak badly about fathers in our current society, as if they’re not doing what they should be doing.

Most of all this is about love — Calum is desperately trying to remain the adult, to be a good, loving dad; to stop Sophie turning into a child carer who sees too much before her time, and yet aware that she’s aware that she’s changing, starts to teach her self-defense skills, to protect her as he perhaps wasn’t.

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Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....