A faulty battery is all that stands between me and a life I can't remember.
Parts of Aftersun, Charlotte Wells' directorial debut, are told through a handheld camera that Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) bring with them to their Turkey holiday, the same kind of handheld camera I can hold in my hands. The tapes that correspond with the camcorder in my possession are labeled with enough detail to get the point across: "Christmas Party '97," "House Photos", "Ireland '97", "Ireland '98", "Ireland 2000". This collection of memories is what you come across when digging through family archives, along with CDs burned with early 2000's jams, a sporting program for the 1991 Orange Bowl, and letters that are worth more in sentiment than the paper that holds the cursive writing. Time has rendered the physical cassette tapes irrelevant. Time tends to do that.
Aftersun opens with the clunky sounds of a camcorder being activated. The camera shakes into focus on Calum, dancing to entertain Sophie at a moment of otherwise normalcy. As she's narrating the two's position from behind the camera, she pivots into an interview. "When you were 11, what did you think you'd be doing now?" Sofie asks her father, innocently putting Calum in her own shoes. He stares distressed at the camera before the frame freezes and we're taken away to reunite with the two from the beginning of the trip.
I came to Aftersun being pulled solely by the gravity of Paul Mescal. Admittedly, his weight is much stronger in my universe than it likely is yours. If you have been introduced to the recent Oscar nominee, it was likely in the same circumstances as my own - his role as Connell in 2020's Hulu adaptation of Normal People. Though his role as Calum required he trade in his native Irish accent for one of Scottish distinction, my affinity for Mescal persevered. In part due to the nature of its writing but equally due to my genetic relatedness, Normal People existed in a place of comfort that revolved around the brilliance of Mescal, that place being Ireland. The accent that Mescal comes by naturally is practiced spontaneously by my mother, who will involuntarily adopt an Irish tongue when speaking excitedly or nostalgically. During my summer visit to the Emerald Isle, I found that she is to have no shame in her imitation. The country is where she feels most at home, she tells me, and I have no reason to ridicule her for the compulsion of her heart overwhelming her throat.
I thought I knew what I was getting in Aftersun: a father-daughter tale of tempered anguish, an emotionally-manipulative protagonist as Mescal is well-equipped and desireful to play, and thoughtful direction from Wells, as I had read to expect. What I did not bargain for when queing Aftersun was the potency of the film's themes: the faultiness of memories, the unbearable grief of failure, and how well you can really know your parents.
My memory has been poor to say the least for as long as I can remember. It has become an amusing character trait for me with loved ones; I come by my forgetfulness honestly, but will admit that my reputation of having a faulty recollection has served me well in instances. It existed as an innocent flaw for years until one day my mom mentioned to me, rather casually but insinuatory, "I read that bad memory is a result of childhood trauma."
"What trauma?" I responded, diffusively.
My dad passed away on February 5, 2007. The events of that day are all that I can recall of our otherwise 7 and a half years spent together. The only memory I have of my father is of him lying silently and unresponsive. I've no recollection of his voice, of his laugh, of his stature. As I sort through old boxes, I create artificial memories. We have photos and letters and items he collected. And a camcorder, with tapes. But the battery refuses to charge.
As is typical of film characters, more and more of Calum is revealed as Aftersun progresses. The care that Mescal plays the character with implies more than is communicated explicitly, and we piece together an entirely different man than is captured on the tapes of the camcorder Sophie points at her father. What is captured on tape are the only moments that can exist undamaged. The tapes won't lie to you, won't decieve you in the same way your mind may contort memories or someone else may alter an account of a story. The tapes tell the truth, but only if you are able to disassociate them with your own memory.
In the closing minutes of the film, it is revealed that Sophie is reliving these memories herself, sorting through the truths of a man she clearly did not fully comprehend. Aftersun is split in presentation, divided between the shaky quality of Sophie's recordings and a seemingly true depiction of the trip. Intermittently we are exposed to a rave-like sequence that features Calum and later Sophie, symbolic of the unreliable flashes of memory Sophie experiences. Aftersun's final scene is an incredible shot that depicts Calum in an empty hallway holding the camcorder, recording Sophie as she leaves him and returns to her life in Scotland. Calum closes the camcorder, wanders down the hallway and through a pair of doors that lead him to a flashing abyss. He enters memory, the only place he will exist moving forward.
The standout scene among all of Aftersun's emotional terrorism highlights Mescal's most powerful skill - to manipulate his audience in ways too cruel to justify. On the final day of their holiday stay, Calum and Sophie run happily towards the resort, Calum dragging and imploring Sophie to join him for a dance. Queen's "Under Pressure" overshadows the moment as Calum grooves to the rhythm, as relaxed and joyful as we've seen him. The man on screen could in no way be the same one we witnessed weeping nakedly in the hotel room, it seems. As the urge to grin in satisfaction for his character becomes almost unfightable for the audience, memories interrupt the moment. We find Sophie and Calum in the rave environment once again. As we alternate between the two sharing a dance and Sophie confronting Calum in the flashes of her memory, the song transforms. The joy that we were holding so close just a moment ago has darkened beyond recognition. "This is our last dance," the song continues in emptiness. "This is ourselves." Its a moment that changes the DNA of a song. You never hear it the same, like when you hear a secret about someone and that's the only thing you can see in them going forward. Aftersun has weaponized this song in a way I will never overcome.
On their last day at the resort, Sophie has a moment of awareness that will only grow more true as she grows older. She doesn't want to leave; she wants to stay with her father on holiday forever. "We can't live in hotels for the rest of our lives," she finally accepts. And she's right: hotels are temporary. Our time there is temporary, and the leisure they provide can only shelter us from our lives for so long. At some point you have to return to reality, and the best you can hope for is a late check-out. When the time is gone, its gone. We can't live in memories forever, no matter how idyllic they may seem.