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Illustrated by Clara Juong

Aftersun and the sunburns from losing a father

Something more heartbreaking than having a parent with depression is realizing that you had a parent with depression: A brief reflection on Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun

Feb 12, 2023

Editor's note: This article contains spoilers.
I was looking for a term that could describe this epiphanic moment; the moment when suddenly, one day, you understand something about your parents that you didn’t notice or didn’t understand when you were younger. The internet didn’t throw any words at me, but I ended up on a Quora discussion thread with heart-warming, but also heart-wrenching, stories. I bumped into numerous anonymous adults online who were finally understanding why their parents gave so much importance to telling them that they love them. One of them was sharing a moment when he finally understood why his dad told him that the last thing a parent wants is to let their kids know that they are afraid. Aftersun, the debut feature film of an NYU alumni, is an ode to these moments, in a subtle but piercing way.
The category “coming of age” always brings to the conversation films such as Call Me by Your Name, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Spirited Away, more classic films such as The Breakfast Club, or Day Off, indie films such as Mid90s or Real Women Have Curves. Even Pixar's Red or Inside Out have been cataloged into this category that explores the transition of a young character into adulthood. Nevertheless, what makes Aftersun worthy of its own category is that it is not simply about the “coming of age” of its eleven-year-old protagonist, played by the charming Frankie Corio. But it also approaches the demons that haunt her 30-year-old dad, Calum, interpreted by Paul Mescal. Because, yeah, what about the “coming of age” category for those young adults who, by a twist of fate, already have a kid but are still trying to find their purpose in life?
Through the innocent and distracted eyes of his daughter — named Sophie — who is in charge of documenting their summer trip with a MiniDV camera, we come to understand that Calum was fighting against depression. The young Sophie didn’t notice this when she was eleven. However, across an intercalation of scenes from the past,with scenes of now adult Sophie dancing at a nightclub, one can infer that these tapes from a sunny summer in the early 2000s are not from the present, but these are the memories of a hurt adult who never saw her father again after that trip. The eyes of a more mature audience can catch what Sophie is not grasping. Calum is not doing “karate moves”, as Sophie describes them, but Tai Chi. He is not excited about turning thirty-one, as he confessed to the diver instructor. He feels insufficient when he can’t afford an extremely expensive Turkish carpet.
Wells tackles a gray area in the narratives that have been brought to the big screen. She delights us with poetic close-ups that put us in the shoes of a daughter who is going down memory lane looking for answers. I could not think of any other films that juxtapose such big and real human crises such as hitting puberty and being a young adult, using a father-daughter relationship as a vehicle. One film that puts together two characters in similar moments is Uptown Girls. But this is a movie about a girl and her babysitter. Indeed, it is not that common to meet people in their early thirties with preadolescent children and perhaps this is what has stopped this storyline from being explored before. Nonetheless, Aftersun makes room for these parents and emphasizes the importance of their mental health.
Recently the internet was blown away when users discovered that Steve Martin in the Father of the Bride was forty-five years old. In addition to this uncovering, when Catherine O’Hara played the role of Kevin’s mom in Home Alone, she was only thirty-six. Isn’t it eye-opening to think that there is only a five-year-old gap between this suburban mom and Aftersun’s conflicted young dad? This is why I am praising this A24 production so much, because it is getting attuned to how youth is maturing at a slower pace nowadays and how not all parents, even 20 years ago, could deal with the stresses of life perfectly well just because they already had a kid. For years, “coming of age” films have revolved around the teenage protagonist, with their parents as their anchor. But Wells asked herself, what if I was too entangled in my own crisis to see what was happening to my dad? At the end of the day, we are all confused human beings who come to this world without an instruction manual.
To magic moments from childhood such as falling asleep in the car and waking up in your room the morning after, or getting wrapped in a striped hotel-pool-towel after a soaking session that left your hands looking like raisins, I would also add this moment when, after a long day under the hot summer sun, you go back to your hotel room, wash off all the chlorine from your body, and one of your parents applies aftersun on your red and warm face. The title of the movie comes from this cream that is supposed to reduce redness and soothe the pain from sunburns. But the feeling that stays with you after watching the film is far from this. The final sequence accompanied by the lyrics “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?/Why can’t we give love that one more chance?” by Queen is pure and heartrending pain. It leaves you wondering “How many things didn’t I observe about my parents?” and leaves you wishing to become a towel-burrito once again, even if it is for the last time.
Check on your parents' mental health and also take care of yours.
Miriam Delgado is a Columnist. Email them at
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