Lisa Ahern writes on fatherhood in the Oscar-nominated Aftersun.
(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Aftersun.)
Though some may disagree, Aftersun is more than just an hour or so spent admiring the dreamy Paul Mescal. I believe the idea of memories is what drives this movie. It even brought up fond memories of my own, when I was a child in a hot foreign country playing cards with my father on some balcony while trying to swat away mosquitoes. The smell of suncream and citronella in the air. There was the calm presence of the quiet night where the only sound was crickets rubbing their legs together. We just existed in that moment. Father and daughter. This is what sparked in my mind after I finished Aftersun, which is pregnant with nostalgia. This is clear in the character of Sophie as an older woman who is trying to reach and remember throughout the movie. We are part of a journey to see the love and relationship between herself and her father.
Aftersun is a film about memories, grief, and most importantly the love and bond between a parent and their child. Paul Mescal plays Calum, father of an 11 year-old girl named Sophie, whom he had at a very young age. We follow their holiday in a Turkish resort where they take part in mundane summer activities. It’s the underlying fragility of Calum’s mind that lifts this movie to be more than it could be. Sophie is an optimistic, curious girl trying to figure out her awakening sexuality and emotions, but the idealistic Calum is slowly detaching himself from her and his own life. Sophie’s innocence allows her to be open, like when she tells her father how she kissed a boy or when she describes how her body feels ‘down’ after an active day. She contrasts with her father, who is clearly dealing with financial and life crises as he nears the age of thirty and tries to cage it all within himself.
The one thing Calum’s character knows is that he loves his daughter and fears that he cannot provide enough for her. This becomes the final straw for him to completely break down when Sophie is not around. Adult Sophie relives these memories to find their hidden meaning. One example is the karaoke scene, wherein Calum refuses to perform. Afterwards he suggests getting singing lessons and Sophie responds by telling him to stop, “offering to pay for something when you don’t have the money.” An older Sophie may realise, but the youthful girl does not see the impact these words have on her father. He feels like he must show his love for her through materialistic means, like the singing lessons, even though he does not have the ability to pay for it. By not being able to provide these things, Calum feels like a neglectful father, culminating in an emotional breakdown of him swimming in the ocean at night and picking up used cigarettes from the floor. It is absolutely heart wrenching to watch this deterioration.
This movie also explores the innocence of familial love. Sophie clearly misses Calum as he does not live in Scotland anymore. We can see this being represented in a scene where she explains to Calum, “I think it’s nice that we share the same sky.” Even though they are parted by an entire country, Sophie feels connected to her father no matter the distance. This sense of longing bolsters the film’s theme of memories because the mature Sophie is also trying to rekindle the memories of love and happiness with her father. She misses him and their relationship from this week abroad. It is only by rewatching old camera recordings can she recall the love that they had before it faded away.