“Aftersun” reviewed by Dan Webster
Many, if not most, children are natural-born narcissists. They may be kind, they may have empathy for others, they may wonder now and then how other people – especially their family members – experience life. But even then, their basic instincts are essentially self-regarding.
Not that we adults are any different. It’s just that children are still figuring out what existence actually is. And to their way of thinking, it’s mostly about them.
Sophie, the 11-year-old girl at the heart of Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells’ film “Aftersun,” is in many ways a typical pre-teen. On holiday at a resort in Turkey with her father, Calum, she spends her days mostly with him, their casual intimacy marked by the authenticity any parent – or child for that matter – can identify with: They joke, they laugh, they make fun of each other, they get irritated with each other.
And in moments of quiet intimacy, they show that they care for one other in that tender way special to fathers and daughters, their relationship marked by the closeness that comes with the purest kind of love.
But, too, Sophie is on the cusp of her teen years. And as such, she is curious about the next steps she’ll be taking – steps that will propel her toward maturity and, in turn, independence. Which is why she longs to be part of the resort social scene enjoyed by a group of teenagers, some of whom adopt her almost as a kind of mascot.
Always, though, she is conscious of her father. And as “Aftersun” progresses, we gradually learn that Calum has issues. The title “Aftersun,” in fact, refers to the kind of products – Aloe Vera, say – that sunbathers use to protect their skin. Which, to a pair of pale Scots in sunny Turkey, is a necessity.
But for Wells, the title serves a dual purpose. Interspersed with scenes of father and daughter swimming, snorkeling, playing pool and engaging in the range of activities a resort typically offers, Well gives us brief scenes of Sophie as an adult, wrestling with images of her father – as if she is struggling to recall not just the moments they spent together but to understand just who the man her father actually was.
Aftersun for her adult self is less protection for her skin as a metaphor for her efforts to recall, and in the process repair, her own unresolved issues.
We’ve seen all this before, movies about children and parents caught in that most classic of relationships, one that almost always necessitates a sense of loss. Children don’t stay children forever, which, too, is the natural order of things. Often in movies the impending nature of that loss is captured in teen rebellion set against parental resistance.
Wells is less interested in the pain of what’s likely to come than in documenting both its foreshadowing and Sophie’s later-life unrest. The closeness that Calum and Sophie exhibit can’t last, and Wells portends that coming disruption in a couple of scenes, both of which involve money. One in particular sees Sophie confronting her father about an obvious lie, which begs the question of who, at that moment, is the adult and who the child.
That, though, is one of the only moments in “Aftersun” that comes close to explaining things. For nearly the whole film, Wells is concerned more with showing us what is happening than offering any actual exposition.
Just as we see Sophie’s yearning, we see Calum – who is barely 20 years older than his daughter – expressing some inner conflict that maybe even he doesn’t understand. Wells visualizes his struggle in one scene in which he lusts after a carpet he clearly can’t afford, and in another in which he walks with purpose into a night-time sea.
But perhaps the most affecting scene in the film involves Calum standing on a hotel balcony, his back to us, smoking a cigarette and moving to music only he can hear, while Wells’ camera rests on Sophie’s napping figure, the only sound coming from her soft breathing.
In that moment the two are both together and apart, with the distance between them to grow only further as the years slowly pass them by.