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That's me in the corner: Aftersun in seven scenes

A study in seven scenes of Aftersun, Charlotte Wells' haunting debut film about an 11-year-old girl and her father on vacation in Turkey

Frankie Corio and (right) Paul Mescal in 'Aftersun'. Image via AP

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I think I thought I saw you try 

As Sophie (Frankie Corio) sings this line from R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’, she looks up at her father in the audience. They’re on holiday in Turkey. It’s karaoke night, the eve of his 31st birthday. Calum (Paul Mescal) refuses to duet, so she’s on stage herself, singing awfully but unselfconsciously. In between, she steals glances at her father, who looks on stonily. He really has tried, making a budget vacation as fun as possible for his daughter, but there’s a gathering darkness he's been struggling to keep at bay. The last thing he wants to do is sing something suffused with dread and indecision.

I don’t know if I can do it

Calum brushes his teeth as Sophie lounges on the bed. “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... feels like your bones don't work,” she says. “They're just tired and everything is tired. Like you're sinking.” Charlotte Wells shoots the scene in a series of intricate framings: Calum reflected upside down in the mirror, as seen by Sophie lying on her back, then a single shot that takes us from Sophie’s reflection to behind Calum’s head and then his face in the mirror. His expression tells us how acutely his daughter’s rambling has described his internal state. He forces himself to respond in a cheery voice, but spits at the mirror before leaving—a gesture of frustration and helplessness. 

Oh no, I’ve said too much 

A friendly scuba instructor tells Calum he’s going to be a father despite not intending to have kids before 40. “Can’t see myself at 40, to be honest,” Calum replies. “Surprised I made it to 30.” Up till this point, Calum is around the centre of the frame, but after he says this, he’s pushed to the extreme right. As he stares wordlessly towards the negative space, the camera pans left until he’s outside the frame, out of the picture. Filmmaking telling us what we already know: something revealing has been said.  

That’s me in the corner

A white wall takes up most of the screen, except for a whirring blue fan on a stand and, to its right, in the bottom corner, a mirror, in which Calum is reflected doing tai chi exercises. It’s a startling composition, at one with the insistent sawing on the soundtrack. Very little in this film puts you at ease.  

What if all these fantasies come flailing around

After Sophie finishes her karaoke performance, she returns to the audience. Calum says he could get her singing lessons if she wants—a dad remark, so badly timed. Sophie, hurt, says he needn’t offer to pay for things he can’t afford. And, like that, Calum’s image of himself as a stable provider is decimated. He wants to think of himself as someone who spends 850 pounds in a tourist trap rug shop, who can shake off his daughter losing a costly scuba mask. Instead, he’s a 30-year-old with plans that haven’t taken off (“The café? No, not anymore…”), who can only afford a vacation at a drab resort in an inexpensive country.  

That’s me in the spotlight

At various points in the film, we see snatches of Calum at a rave, watched by an adult Sophie. They’re ominous images, barely visible, lit only by strobe lights. It feels like a sequence which will ‘explain’ the film, and when it came around at the end, intercut with the young Sophie and Calum dancing in Turkey, I felt myself leaning in. But is anything revealed? Sophie appears to confront Calum, shout, push him away. They stagger. Then they’re hugging. Is it an intervention? A reunion? The last time she saw him? An answer-obsessed film culture might have met its match in this brilliantly edited sequence. 

That was just a dream

As Sophie waves bye to her dad at the airport, the video freezes. The camera pans slowly to reveal the edge of a TV and further rightwards until we see the adult Sophie, sitting on a sofa, watching her childhood unfold. Yet, what we've been watching is something more. I’m recording this in my mind camera, Sophie tells her father at one point. Aftersun is the footage of a mind camera, assembled years later—all those ill-fitting fragments, snatches of conversations, bursts of sensory overload.

In the film’s enigmatic final shot, Calum walks down an empty corridor and through a swinging door, beyond which strobe lights flash. We hear Sophie’s baby gurgle. She’s lost in a bittersweet dream, but her present is calling out to her. She’ll snap out of her reverie and tend to it, just as she was tended to all those years ago. 

Aftersun is streaming on MUBI.

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