‘Aftersun’ ending explained: breaking down one of the year’s best film scenes

Fans of Normal People, rejoice: there might just be a new career-best performance from Paul Mescal to enjoy in the shape of his performance as a struggling young dad in major British indie debut, Aftersun.

The film, a first-time feature from writer-director Charlotte Wells has bowled critics and audiences over since its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. It subtly tells a story about a father and daughter that flits between past and present, through shaky home video footage and holiday memories.

Much has been made of the film’s knockout rave sequences and ambiguous ending – beware of spoilers, but read on to unpack one of the most affecting films of the year.

Aftersun plot: what happens in the film?

Aftersun frames a summer holiday in an all-inclusive resort in Turkey, where single dad Calum (Paul Mescal), in his early thirties, has taken his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). Calum does his best to give Sophie the perfect holiday but seems to struggle with anxiety and depression – something Sophie only realises while looking back on the holiday as an adult.

The film shows Sophie in the present day rewatching old camcorder footage she and Calum – but mainly Calum – shot during the holiday, seeming to try to piece together what happened to him after their holiday ended.

Aftersun ending: what does it mean?

Much of the power of Aftersun comes from its subtlety, its resistance to explain exactly what is weighing Calum down or to reveal the specifics of what Sophie as an adult wants to know, or the things she as a child maybe wanted to ask.

The end of the film sees the past and present storylines almost intertwine, as moments of Calum dancing at a rave, the screen alternating from strobe lights showing him dancing and frames of pitch black, mirror those of Sophie as an adult seeming as if she sees him across the dance floor, searching for something.

But in the timeline of the holiday, Calum is trying to convince Sophie to join him at the hotel party for one of their final nights in Turkey, and what seems like it could be one of their nights together.

(Credit: MUBI)

Wells boldly sets the scene to Queen and David Bowie mega-hit ‘Under Pressure’, which takes on a powerful, emotional meaning as Freddie Mercury sings, “This is our last dance / this is ourselves” while Calum moves freely, in a moment of immense catharsis, while Sophie of past and present tries to piece it all together.

It’s worth noting that the film was produced by Barry Jenkins’ production company Pastel Productions, as Aftersun deftly chops and screws many of the ’90s hits it uses (including Blur‘s ‘Tender’), in a similar way to what Jenkins has done in his work with The Chopstars to tweak existing tracks, isolation vocals and changing rhythms to make them bold in a different way, in the way Wells does here.

Where does Calum go at the end of Aftersun?

The very last moments of the film return to Calum at the airport, filming Sophie as he drops her off to fly home to Edinburgh to her mum. He stays behind the barriers, camcorder in one hand and waving with the other, before turning away and walking through a set of double doors.

It’s not clear where Calum goes, or whether Sophie sees him again after the holiday shown in Aftersun. Wells avoids imposing any one conclusion about Calum’s mental health or Sophie’s grief, creating a much better film for its tenderness that’s felt between the gaps of what happens on screen.

‘Aftersun’ will be released in UK cinemas via MUBI on November 18

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Ella Kemp