Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun takes the viewers on their favourite summer vacation and offers a new perspective on their own parents by telling the story of thirty-one-year-old Calum and his daughter’s vacation in Turkey in the 1990s. This reflective film promises to give a feeling of longing for the ones most missed.
By Seda Saygili
Aftersun, the feature debut of Scottish director Charlotte Wells, had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 2022, won the jury prize and brought Paul Mescal the best actor nomination at the Academy Awards. It follows a young father, Calum, and his eleven-year-old daughter Sophie on a summer vacation in Turkey in the late 1990s. This trip feels like Calum and Sophie’s last and most memorable one yet. Years later, Sophie approaches thirty-one, the same age her father was when they went on the holiday, and since her father has already passed away, she revisits old videos and reminisces about the trip from his perspective. Aftersun has been regarded as one of the best films of 2022, earning positive feedback from audiences. Moreover, former US President Barack Obama has included it on his list of favourite movies of 2022.
Wells describes the movie as her recollections of a holiday with her father. One day, Wells noticed a photo of her father from their summer vacation and realized how young her father was. This gave her a starting point for the script: a young father is on vacation with his daughter. They are seen enjoying the sun, swimming in the pool, experiencing a Hammam (Turkish bath) and a mudbath. However, this is an internal vacation, too, especially for Sophie’s depressed father, portrayed by Irish actor Paul Mescal. Some vacations are unforgettable not only because people have a good time but because they have opportunity to contemplate their life and new decisions.
90s Turkey Filter
The story centers around the trip to Turkey, even if it sometimes appears monotonous. The story is portrayed from Sophie’s perspective. The choice of the child’s perspective is crucial because it shows how limited a child’s perception of her father is. As viewers, we see Sophie’s new perspective of the events after her father’s death in particular scenes. Sophie’s limited perception highlights the climax of the story. The film conveys the message that when one loses someone, every memory, even the most mundane, appears precious and meaningful. The genre of the film is drama, and it feels so. Sophie has divorced parents, and this is a father-daughter-alone holiday in a country that they both have never been to before.
Wells’ creation of the mise-en-scene is impressive in the sense of colours and her 90s filter of Turkey. She shows a Turkish holiday resort with clichés such as a carpet shop visit or night shows featuring the Macarena and umbrella straws in the drinks. The use of available lightning makes the movie’s tone naïve and creates authenticity and intimacy between the characters. Eleven-year-old Sophie’s handheld camera monologues are another beautiful aspect of Wells’ technique that presents vlogging in 90s when everything was thoroughly recorded. Wells not only uses handheld camera techniques, but also reflects her characters on the TV’s »black mirror« when the camera turns off. As an example, a scene showing a dialogue through the black screen of the TV might be an implication of Sophie’s changing adult perspective on the events while watching the DVDs. Since this scene makes the audience aware that they are the viewers of the story, it can be a reference to the meta-cinema technique in which the audience is notified that they are watching a work of fiction.
Close-ups and foreboding
Close-up shots of the hands focus on the emotional state of the characters when Sophie’s little hands touch her father’s or when Calums is shown in the hotel bathroom trying to uncover the plaster on his hand. This might also indicate Calum’s hidden sufferings, both physical and emotional.
Additionally, the underwater scenes of both father and daughter symbolize the emotional suffocation of the young father whose crying we witness. Foreboding, Sophie also tells her father after a pool day: »Don’t you ever feel like you’ve just done a whole amazing day, and then you come home and feel tired and down, and it feels like your bones don’t work? They’re just tired and everything is tired. Like you’re sinking…« While her father already feels like he is sinking, he does his best to make Sophie feel happy on this vacation.
Another interesting scene that Wells creates is to show Calum and Sophie dancing in a club at the beginning and the end of the movie. This dance starts with Sophie’s young self and ends with her adult self while her father remains the same age. In the end, they get closer and dance together. This illustrates that Sophie can finally comprehend her father at the age of thirty-one. The editing and sound design shine throughout the film, elevating a simple story to a touching masterpiece.
Aftersun’s poignant score brings another plus point to the film. The soundtrack of the film serves as a supporting actor from the beginning until the end. Especially, Turkish singer Candan Ercetin’s »Gamsiz Hayat« (Lighthearted Life) touches a sore spot and adds to the melancholy ambience of the film.