Depression isn’t rational. It doesn’t matter how many of your loved ones may be around at a given time, or how great your day at work was, or how much you exercised that week; depression doesn’t care about any of those things. It’s a chemical burden that acts on its own terms, and more terrifying than its inexplicability is witnessing the toll your depression can take on those closest to you.
“Gee whiz, this is a fun read,” you’re probably saying to yourself, “This movie must be a real barrel of laughs!” Well, it’s true that Aftersun — the feature debut from writer / director Charlotte Wells — is primarily about depression. But what’s so striking about Aftersun is that it’s never depressing. Melancholy? Absolutely. Wistful? Big time! But it certainly isn’t a drag, and it’s always gorgeous.
The film, produced by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, doesn’t follow a traditional story structure and feels more like flipping through a scrapbook of memories surrounding one trip between a young father and his 11-year-old daughter at a nameless vacation resort. Intercut with grainy digital camera footage, cinematographer Gregory Oke uses warm, pastel lens filters to evoke the sensation of a bittersweet memory decades past. Even if the ‘90s soundtrack and fragmented present-day interludes weren’t there to tell you most of the action was one person’s memories, the film’s uncanny evocation of nostalgia would tell you as much.
When discussing his movie Boyhood, Richard Linklater once said, “You don’t remember your high school graduation ceremony. You remember the car ride home from graduation.” Aftersun has a similarly intimate and low-key feel for much of its runtime. Much of the time we spend with 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal of Normal People fame), are watching them engage in mildly pleasant, listless conversations and goofing around with each other in loving fashion. The first 15 minutes or so may prove frustrating to some audiences, as it’s initially quite unclear if this movie has any intention of being more than a simple scrapbook of some girl’s random vacation.
Eventually, however, an uneasiness bubbles to the surface as small details in Calum and Sophie’s conversations, and unusual wrinkles in the father’s behavior, begin to paint a picture of creeping mental illness. The movie occasionally steps into ham-fisted territory when it tries to make the implications of Calum passing along his depression onto his daughter too explicit; there are some glimpses of modern-day Sophie that tragically over-explain the subtext Wells has carefully laid out up to that point. But for the most part, the movie communicates the character’s inner struggle with a subtlety that becomes haunting by the final scene.
One can see what attracted a filmmaker like Jenkins to produce Aftersun. Much like his 2018 effort If Beale Street Could Talk, there’s a tenderness that radiates through even the most downcast scenes. In the movie’s centerpiece sequence, Sophie takes to a small stage to perform a karaoke rendition of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” It’s a minor triumph for her character, expressing herself creatively and making herself vulnerable to the world for the first time. A lesser movie would have Sophie slowly gain confidence as she sings, only to be joined by her dad for the last chorus in a blissful instance of father-daughter bonding.
But Aftersun is too authentic to go that route. Instead, it’s an awkward and uncomfortable performance as Sophie continually gestures for her dad to come on stage to join her, which he never does. And while the moment is a somewhat triumphant one for Sophie, it’s an ominous sign for Calum, who is too consumed in the tumult of his mental state to be present in what should be a joyful occasion. It’s a small detail that too few stories about mental illness take the time to depict. Aftersun is special in that way, a movie that focuses on tiny moments to speak immense truths.