Aftersun reflects my story of intergenerational depression

11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) collapses on her hotel room bed after a long, sunny day at the pool. He’s lost in thought.

“Are you all right over there?” she asks her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), from the bathroom, where he’s brushing his teeth in front of the mirror.

“I don’t know. I guess,” Sophie replies. “I just feel a little down or something.”

Calum asks what she means and Sophie replies: “Don’t you ever feel like you’ve had a whole amazing day and then you come home and you’re tired and run down and your bones just don’t work? They are just tired and everything is tired. Like you’re drowning. I do not know. It is strange.”

In the bathroom, Calum is quiet for a long moment. He looks down, as if he can’t bear to meet his own reflection. “Well,” he says, “we came to have a good time, huh?” Without Sophie seeing him, he looks up abruptly and spits his toothpaste into the mirror, locking eyes with himself for a split second.

That brief glance contains multitudes: Calum’s gears are turning, processing the realization that his daughter, whom he loves fiercely, is beginning to experience the burden he lives with. There is a pain in his eye and a glint of steely disgust—the shame and guilt of depression personified. The moment—from a scene in the movie After the SUN, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama written and directed by Charlotte Wells in her feature debut — set my gears, too. I saw my mother in Calum’s eyes — and myself in Sophie. What, I wondered, would he have seen in the hotel bathroom mirror? I know what I see.

Sophie (Frankie Corio) and Calum (Paul Mescal) dance to ‘Under Pressure’ in ‘Aftersun’. the author and her mother in 1998

A24; Courtesy of Francisco Zornosa

After the SUN has been critically acclaimed since its release in 2022. Welles received a BAFTA for the film and Mezcal is nominated for Best Actor at Sunday’s Academy Awards for his heart-pounding performance as Calum. The story meanders, following Calum and Sophie on holiday in Turkey in the 1990s. Sophie’s parents are divorced, like mine, and she lives with her mum, like me when I visit home. This is a slice of life, less a plot-driven film than Sophie’s gradual understanding of her father as a whole, a flawed person beyond parenthood. Like Sophie, we don’t realize until too late that this is one of the last times she will see him.

I saw After the SUN on the flight from New York to Chicago—one of the most vulnerable ways to watch a movie—on my way home to celebrate my mom’s 57th birthday. While Sophie and Calum are in Turkey, Calum turns 31. He tells a diving instructor that he’s surprised he made it to 30 and doesn’t expect to make it to 40.

When my mom was my age, she attempted suicide – the unspoken issue that flows quietly After the SUN, next to the sparkling Mediterranean. The night I arrived in Chicago last month, I came home from a date and my mom had drunk too much, she went where I couldn’t follow, horribly reminiscent of another scene from the movie. It’s a turning point in the film, following a series of effortless sequences – lounging by the pool, watching paragliders fly by, enjoying cheap resort fun. Sophie signed herself up for a karaoke duet with her dad, something they did every holiday. But tonight, Calum’s had a few too many beers and he doesn’t want it. So Sophie takes the stage alone, awkwardly soloing REM’s “Losing My Religion.”

“I thought I heard you laugh,” she shouts to her dad. “I thought I heard you sing. I think I thought I saw you trying. But that was just a dream.” That in itself struck a chord with me.

Frankie Corio as Sophie in Aftersun.  the author in 2005 (A24, Courtesy of Francisco Zornosa)

Frankie Corio as Sophie in Aftersun. author in 2005

A24? Courtesy of Francisco Zornosa

But then Sophie and Calum decide to split up for the night, the daughter visibly upset by her parent’s inability to play together. Sophie explores, hanging out with the older kids at the resort. Later that night, she has her first kiss, growing up really fast. Back in the room, Calum is already watching nostalgic footage from his handheld video camera. It’s a tender photo of Sophie talking nonsense about her “wonderful, wonderful, amazing” parent. He looks down again, brow furrowed, seemingly in pain, closes the video camera and leaves. We watch him get lost on the dark, deserted beach, where he steps lonely towards the water, beckoning The Bell Jar. After disappearing into the surf, the camera lingers there for nearly a minute, foreshadowing what is, or may be, to come.

When Sophie returns to the room (with the help of the receptionist, having literally, accidentally, been locked out by Calum), she finds him melted in her bed and covers him with a sheet.

But here’s the thing: Calum is sleeping in the lone bed in the hotel room, which he had promptly bequeathed to Sophie at the start of the holiday. Without thinking, she was relegated to a small folding crib – something my mom has done (figuratively, if not literally) time and time again. Regardless of his mental health, Calum is a good dad, a great dad.

“There’s a very distinct public and private aspect to it,” Mescal said said Mubi, the global streaming platform that released the film in the UK “There’s something really colorful and exuberant about him. And I think he’s a great father, but obviously he’s got a lot going on behind closed doors.”

If you ask my friends from home, who refer to my mom as ‘Mama Z’, she is a tender, loving mother figure, always making sure everyone has enough to eat. To them, she is happy and bright. For me, it is, too – now I understand the complexity behind it.

Over the years—and especially during the height of the pandemic, when the two of us shared a small house—we’ve faced our depression together, making it slightly less lonely but also infinitely more so. Neither of us wants to admit to the other – my only child, her only child – that they feel like our bones don’t work. We, like Calum, yo-yo through life, oscillating between not being able to get out of bed and forcing ourselves to get up, determined to start over.

Calum (Paul Mescal) with the £850 Turkish rug he buys later.  author's mother in 1997 (A24, Courtesy of Francisco Zornosa)

Calum (Paul Mescal) with the £850 Turkish rug he buys later. the author’s mother in 1997

A24? Courtesy of Francisco Zornosa

In a note to A24, published the day the film was released in the US, Welles described the Turkish meaning of hasret as “some combination of longing, love and loss. A memory of intimacy from a distance.”

I feel that almost every time I look at my mom these days. A line from Marge Piercy’s poem “My Mother’s Body” comes to mind: “You sing in my mind like wine/ What you didn’t dare in your life, you dare in mine.”

In After the SUN, at one point, we realize that all these scenes are memories, reconstructed from camcorder footage and memories of an adult Sophie, now with her partner and child, her toes touching the red, patterned Turkish carpet that the Calum couldn’t afford it but bought anyway on this holiday. She has a bittersweet relationship with her father, inseparable from a nostalgia I already feel, no matter how meaningless. Hashret. I too long for more time with my parent, but fear what realizations this may bring.

At the beginning of the film, Sophie and Calum lay by the pool. “I think it’s nice that we share the same sky,” says Sophie. “What do you mean?” Calum asks.

“Well, sometimes during playtime, I look up at the sky,” Sophie replies. “And if I can see the sun, then I think about the fact that we can both see the sun. So even though we’re not actually in the same place and we’re not actually together, we kind of are, you know? Like, we’re both under the same sky, so we’re kind of together.”

My mom and I are always somehow together, bound by the same sky, the same inexplicable sadness and the same persistence. I know what I see in the hotel bathroom mirror, but I hope she looks into her eyes and sees mine, full hasret.

If you or someone you know may be thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In an emergency, call 911 or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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