Inter-gender parental bonds seldom get the depth and emotional transparency when it comes to fathers and daughters. A deep dive into the eternally intertwined fates of mothers and sons constitutes the other side of that personal equation, finding the sanctity that makes them universally acceptable. It’s a particular cultural feature that has thrived, only to be shredded by the nuance, complexity and often explicit toxicity among parents and agitated offspring who share the same gender. Psychology, sociology, and gender studies have much to compensate for the lack of formality we accord to filial relationships in terms of the baggage they carry over generations. It all comes down to the human mind, which is susceptible to trauma, always a facilitator for families to have a ruptured vein. In the end, memories of our bonds last.
To those and more intimate ends, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun is a revelation, its pivot on a young 30-something father and his pre-teen daughter being fundamental for relaying the melancholic foundations that define adults.
The first is the father back in the 1990s during a holiday in Turkey, and the other is the adult daughter in the present time who goes through life with a haunted sentience. These adults’ divided temporal zones never overlap but design their intricate journey towards unresolved mysteries that we just don’t possess the wherewithal to verbalise easily, especially in the presence of those we love beyond words or articulate markers. It’s the kind of look back at one summer eternally stretching itself in the writer’s mind, the visual language for which has a deeper location in the soul; so the strobe lights employed here decentre the core of memory as an undefined haze, with no real beginning, middle or end. In many contexts, Aftersun is a memorial to the times that now believe in the joy of togetherness and find re-evaluation in retrospect. Like the drowsy, liminal march of one generation to another but lucid nevertheless. I can feel this semi-autobiographical work’s nerve ends, sending shivers of tension to my core one week after watching it. Calum’s (Paul Mescal) melancholy here is something many men contend with; he is in a territory of depression brought on by being an outsider in a world gone to the wolves, where one man’s rejection of values promoting gratification of a materialist kind or even the pressure of conforming doesn’t solve itself with an abiding love for his daughter. Now, Aftersun makes no use of flashbacks or a conventional musical cue to break down Paul Mescal’s internalised condition where he is reliving stages of grief, of being an unacknowledged child in his formative years, through his inability to reach out to his daughter, who has a wealth of innocence, curiosity and natural inclination to be her father’s ally as an eleven-year-old coming to discover things of her own accord. Yet he’s a wonderful man, never shirking his responsibility or belittling the little one’s burgeoning sense of wonder at the things that engage her.
Frankie Corio is one with Mescal in being a receptacle of the silences, the ardor of a holiday where nothing much and everything significant happens to define them both. It’s a tale as old as time: the joys and pains of growing up for both the guardian and the one nurtured by them. But it’s rarely done with this trust in the far-reaching manner of realism. Wells goes deep to make home videos of the trip, giving us the same longing she feels now, the incidental situation there informing a register of communicating what she now grasps. There’s a respect sought within the time capsule, a condensed storehouse of memory far from the spry, cathartic function of nostalgia. It’s more psychologically dense for the same reason. What she films is compact and intimate to a fault, specifically in how it unearths the unseen wounds she now recognises in her father. But it’s a labour of love, above all.
The screenplay has lodged itself in my mind through the many instances where the camera resides in the spaces in which this duo does as if it was almost hidden among the ghosts of this fairly happy period in the life of a fragmented family.
When both father and daughter share a memorable dance to ‘Under Pressure,’ practice Tai Chi together, prank fellow revellers at the restaurant, share their thoughts on the idea of this family as not punctured by a divorce when out in the sea, or broaching a frank roadmap for future interactions, they are like all of us.
The flipside is equally attuned to the order of a life divided into parts, seen only in reflections in the mirror or through a breakdown captured from the back profile. When Sophie interviews her father on video, and he confesses the painful truth about one childhood birthday, it is enough to reveal multitudes about a history of parental abuse and neglect. His face in the mirror while listening to his daughter talk about a sense of alienation signals a recognition that the generational signs cannot be that far away for her, and when a karaoke session set to ‘Losing my Religion’ starkly spotlights the distance between them, with Calum refusing to participate and the daughter disappointed by this reality in a public space full of strangers. Soon after, she makes a comment about his limited financial means when he offers to pay for singing lessons. Both are wounded by the inescapability of being so vulnerable to each other. For me, the one where Calum casually drops a hint about never having hoped to reach his thirties to a diving counterpart on the boat is devastating. It’s a scenario where strangers are actual ghosts who cannot intrude on the private pain of others, but the literal manifestations are between kindred.
The journey remains a concrete reality. Memories escape the curse of forgetfulness or denial. The father-daughter bond reaches out to us to be about more than that final home video captured at the airport or the friction point which drives them apart for a few hours for almost one night. Aftersun is about bonds that are so deep only we can dive into the abyss and rescue ourselves from pangs of remorse and regret.
Parental love can be about many things: involuntary affections, tough love, overprotectiveness, lullabies and experiences of wisdom corralled to renew us. But seldom does an embrace or a sincere smile tug our heartstrings as it does here.
Aftersun is playing in limited theatres and is streaming on MUBI
by Prithvijeet Sinha
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile.