In a recent episode of the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, the guest Uma Chakravarty talked about memory being episodic. She said that after remembering an instance for the first time, every subsequent time we re-recall a memory, it's remembering the last time we remembered the instance, and not remembering the incident itself. This act of re-remembering events adds layers to it. It helps us make sense of something that happened in the past; to introspect. This may completely alter the lens by which we might have perceived something in the past. This is especially true in the case of childhood memories. This recontextualising of memory is what the movie Aftersun more than perfects. On the surface what may seem like a coming-of-age story for 11-year-old Sophie on a simple, melancholic little vacation with her father, is the story of a father grappling with severe mental health issues trying to be there for his daughter on what he knows are the last few days he'll spend with her. The entire movie is a collection of memories from the perspective of Sophie- things she didn't understand as a child but is trying to piece together as an adult.
To the viewer, the father’s mental health issues are not entirely a surprise. There are several hints dropped from the very beginning of the movie pointing to this and the different ways the father copes with his mental health issues, in a show-don't-tell manner. The very first scene of the movie is a tape of Sophie asking her father in her childlike wonder what he thought he'd be doing right now when he was her age. Immediately, we see him dodge the question and ask Sophie to turn the camera off. This is the first indicator that her father was not happy with where he was in life. Later in the movie, we see Sophie as a grown-up, rewatching this tape, probably looking for hints of who her father was that she missed as a child. In another instance, Sophie gets her entire tour bus to sing happy birthday for her father thinking it would make him happy. Birthdays had never been a particularly happy occasion for him, and the weight of his age crept up on him, making the sweet gesture an unpleasant experience.
The movie does an incredible job of contrasting the experiences of Sophie and her father. The best example of this is a simple conversation between them through the door of the bathroom. The father is shown cutting his cast off his fractured hand inside the bathroom, clearly in immense pain. On the other side of the wall is Sophie chatting away with him happily. Her father answers all her questions patiently and doesn't let her know how much pain he is in. This blissful ignorance is emphasized through lighting as well, with the bathroom having dim, blue-green lighting, and the bedroom where Sophie is with warm lighting. Her father tries his best to shelter her from his reality by trying to become a part of her world. In a scene in the movie, Sophie talks about how despite having a great day comes back home feeling sad and her bones feeling heavy. Her father, all too familiar with this feeling, immediately tells her that they are going out to have fun.
This isn't to say that Sophie is completely unaware of what her father is going through. She immediately apologised to him after losing a pair of swimming goggles because she knew how difficult it was for him to buy those. On another night, when her father went out and passed out on the bed, he is extremely apologetic to her. Sophie doesn't say anything, just comforts him to tell him that it's okay. But bits and pieces of her memory like him doing Tai Chi late at night or him waking up and crying are confusing to her. At the time, she probably saw those as anomalies in her father's behaviour, but as time progresses, she probably understands what she missed out on as a child. The fact that she can look back and introspect on these memories does show that her father's behaviour made a large impact on her.
The movie walks the line of showing the holiday through the lens of Sophie as a child and adult very well. You can see the memories through the lens of a child but an adult trying to understand them. Her father is jovial with her, always talking to her like an equal and ensuring she has a good time with him. She sees him like most children see their parents, free of flaws, a little invincible. He also does his best to keep up this facade. On the last day of the holiday, after dinner, the father starts dancing to 'I Want to Break Free' by Queen with young Sophie refuses to dance with him. This is intermixed with Sophie as an adult inserting herself in that memory. In a frenzy of flashing lights in a pitch-black setting (a modified version of the memory in her head), one sees Sophie as an adult reaching out to her father and hugging him, now understanding him a little better, and apologetic for not understanding sooner. Sophie is shown replaying this in her head on her own birthday, presumably when she turned her father's age, where she is left with nothing but the videos they took on the trip and the memories in her own head now layered with so much she didn't know. The final scene shows her father recording her leave at the airport, energetically waving to him and the adult version of Sophie seeing him wave back and disappear into black.
This movie will make you sit and think about conversations you have had with your own parents throughout your life, and look for any subtext you might have missed out on. As we grow older, we stop seeing our parents as these magical creatures whose only job is to protect us, but as real people. As we become more empathetic people, we understand where they come from, and that humanises them, making a lot of your childhood memories so much more complicated. That is exactly what Sophie is also left with, a set of videotapes and memories in her head to untangle to understand who her father was.