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'Aftersun' and the Fragility of Memory

The moment I got up from my seat was the moment when Aftersun’s magic truly dawned on me. During the film, I’d been savoring each scene, trying to assemble my racing thoughts into something coherent, without realizing that my heart had been shattered in the most gentle and beautiful way. After a long minute, I regained my breath, but its sensitive touch has stayed with me since— I hope it never leaves.

Aftersun is Charlotte Wells’ first feature film, an impressive and promising debut. She describes it as “emotionally autobiographical,” transcending the specific details of her life to tap into something both more personal and universal. The film follows a summer vacation in Turkey taken by Sophie (Frankie Corio), a smart and curious 11-year-old, and Calum (Paul Mescal), her loving but quietly struggling father, only 31 himself. Framing this trip are the reflections of an adult Sophie, grieving the parts of her father that she knew and the parts that she couldn’t have known, scouring her memories for clues and comfort.


Those hoping for a dramatic plot may not respond to Wells’ anti-narrative approach; she mostly eschews exposition and intense developments in favor of implication and gradual accumulation. Just as most of our stories don’t neatly conform to three-act structures, Aftersun feels like a loose tapestry of memories, reconstructed fragments of experience only woven together in retrospect. Supplementing those memories are snippets of miniDV footage, serving as the only definitive artifacts from Sophie and Calum’s time together. Yet in their brevity and artifice, these videos still fail to capture the full nuance of their unrecoverable past.

The heart of Aftersun lies in the dynamic between its main father-daughter duo. Corio makes an incredible acting debut, shading Sophie with a depth and wistfulness far beyond what one would expect from a 12-year-old newcomer. Mescal’s performance as Calum is a perfect counterbalance, projecting a fragile cheery surface for his daughter’s sake while fighting demons hidden from view.


Even though Sophie usually lives with her mother, the two appear quite close. Long stretches of the film proceed as if they’re the only two people in the world. Calum is protective of her without being overbearing, wanting her to be able to fend for herself and handle her struggles better than he did; an interesting counterpoint is made between a scene where he teaches a basic self-defense technique and a later scene where they do tai chi together, one of Calum’s recurring attempts at mindfulness. We also notice Calum paying for the vacation and a variety of trinkets in his aspiration to be a good father, despite his precarious finances. Sophie picks up on this tension at many points, like when she apologizes after losing an expensive scuba mask, though we get the sense that she doesn’t need much more than his presence.

There’s also a coming-of-age story built into Aftersun, as we see Sophie aspire for adolescence. Her dad tells her to introduce herself to some girls her age, but she’d much rather hang out with a group of debaucherous teenagers, representing a world of freedom just out of reach. Following in their footsteps, a minor romance blossoms between her and a boy she meets at the arcade, a subplot made even more amusing by the implication that Sophie is a lesbian in adulthood. However, always commingled with Sophie’s curiosity is a sense of foreboding, a host of troubles on the horizon of maturity that she can’t yet put her finger on.


Aftersun shines by evoking the feeling of memories being processed, working through every joy and warning sign to try to make sense of the past. After opening with a brief clip of camcorder footage, the film erupts into a pixelated flurry of recollections, appearing and disappearing too quickly to parse through before Wells untangles them and plays them back at narrative speed. A parallel effect occurs toward the end of the film when Calum buys a photograph taken of them, which we see slowly develop on the table as their conversation unfolds off-screen. It's as if Sophie’s own story of the experience is finally coming into focus.

These are just two standout elements among many within a distinctly poetic visual language, shaped by Wells and cinematographer Gregory Oke. Much of Aftersun’s theming is conveyed wordlessly, frequently highlighting negative space or pushing shots into abstraction where they can work on a more unconscious level. The film maintains a meditative pace throughout, most noticeable when the camera lingers a few seconds longer than we’d expect, allowing scenes to tonally morph through their final beats.


Perhaps the most striking image in Aftersun is a recurring apparition of a crowded nightclub, pitch-black apart from intense strobe lights. We see adult Sophie standing among the crowd, reaching out in flashes towards a dancing Calum, still the same age as he was decades ago in Turkey. Among other Malick echoes in the cinematography, these fragments feel like an inversion of the beach vision in The Tree Of Life, where the protagonist can embrace and finally be at peace with his family. Aftersun’s nightclub shows a much more painful and fragmented experience of grief, but no less powerful when it clicks into place in the film’s cross-cutting climax.

Viewers’ mileage with the film will vary depending on their stylistic preferences and their own life experience; it’s not a film that offers traditional payoffs or conclusive answers to the many questions it raises. That said, I can attest to my own vivid response to Aftersun. I don’t attribute this to any objective similarities I might have with Sophie or Calum, which are few in number.


Rather, like the famous madeleine, its emotional truth unlocked my own parallel narrative, an even looser web of memories that was clearer than ever before. I thought of the endless summer days spent in my grandparents’ pool, the naïveté of grade-school romance, discovering that my words could hurt my parents, realizing that their adult problems would someday be mine, all the photo albums that remember what I’ve long forgotten…

My favorite moment in Aftersun could be missed in a blink. Sophie is playing with the camcorder, the video displayed on the television in the hotel room as she captures it. For a brief second, she points the camera at the display itself, causing the video to recursively appear inside itself in an infinite signal cascade. We are so fundamentally distant from our pasts— all we have are memories of memories of memories all the way down, accumulating errors and distortions through a lifetime of remembering. But maybe that’s what makes them so precious.


-Jonathan

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