Aftersun and the nostalgia of the family holiday

MUBI's dazzling new film Aftersun starring Paul Mescal uses a package holiday to explore the power of childhood experience. We spoke to two experts in nostalgia to explore why family holidays create lifelong memories.

Before you even arrive at the opening sequence of Aftersun – one of the most devastatingly beautiful films in recent memory – its title hints at the journey that lies ahead. Set 20 years on from a 1999 family holiday to Turkey between 31 year-old father Calum (Paul Mescal) and 11 year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio), it reflects the time after sun; long after the tan has faded, the memories still linger, like the flash of a disposable camera suspended in your eye.

Simultaneously, the title points to the ointment used to soothe sunburn; while Calum insists on topping up Sophie’s sun-cream throughout the day, and aims to protect her through self-defence, diving and open conversation, no safeguard is ever impassable. Sometimes, the salve of aftersun, of time-forged reflection, is needed to paste over memories: even if some sunspots never fade.

Although technically set after the holiday, almost the entire film follows the trip itself. We’re only afforded fleeting glances at the present; of Sophie, now her father’s original age, watching back VHS tapes of the holiday while sitting above the rug Calum bought at a market. As the film progresses, we experience the package holiday – water polo, games of pool, awkward hook-ups, lukewarm grills – through the fuzz of magnetic tape and the buzz of her own mind, a combination of memories and footage; at one point, we even see adult Sophie’s reflection in the TV screen, fusing together past and present.

With both navigating liminal spaces – the start of a new decade in their own lives and the end of a millenium in the world – memories are cultivated, but also become cracked like sun-damaged skin. Throughout the film, strobe-lit clips of Calum losing himself at a rave puncture the timeline like acid flashbacks, with Sophie eventually entering herself. At times, the film’s soundtrack – a nineties holiday mix of Barbie Girl, Under Pressure and Never Have I Ever – becomes warped and gets remixed in slow motion.

In many ways, the holiday is trouble-free, idyllic; but subtle dramas that went almost unnoticed at the time – teenagers at the resort giggling about handjobs, Calum’s mysterious injuries, hints of financial insecurity – take on new significances upon reflection, retroactively imbued with the energy of the sublime. The comedown of the final night never ends; as they get ready to leave, Sophie quips: Why can’t we just stay here forever? Like, why not?” before being persuaded by Calum to dance under the waning sun.

This bittersweet feeling grounds the entire film, representative of the powerful nostalgia that family holidays create. From bizarre, gelatinous ice-lollies to fleeting friendships, seeing new sides to your parents to getting at least five searing ear infections, trips abroad provide mementos that long outlive the tacky souvenirs. But why do holidays trigger such intense memories? To find out more, THE FACE spoke to two experts in nostalgia – Dr. Jacob Juhl and Professor Krystine Batcho – about memories, sensory experience and home videos.

In simple terms — what is nostalgia? How do we use it as a coping mechanism?

Dr Jacob Juhl: Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for the past. Nostalgia provides psychological comfort by garnering up feelings of connectedness with others and a sense that life is meaningful.

Professor Krystine Katcho: Nostalgia is a bittersweet longing for something in our past. The feeling can be a mix of the sweet memories of special people, times, or events and the bitter recognition that the past is gone forever and cannot be brought back. Nostalgia can help people cope during difficult periods by reminding them of people who loved them and the happy times they spent together. Nostalgia can remind people of how they, and people they depended upon, solved problems and overcame adversity in the past. Knowing that we overcame tough challenges before can strengthen our resolve to cope with problems in the present. Research has shown that people who are more prone to nostalgia are also more likely to rely upon healthy coping strategies when dealing with the stress of change and adverse situations.

Why do family holidays creates so many memories? Are we prone and primed as soon as we jet off to remember more than we do in everyday life?

Juhl: We remember holidays because they are unique experiences. Holidays stick out in our memory because they are different from our typical day-to-day lives of work or school.

Batcho: Family holidays can be very nostalgia-prone. Nostalgic memories are typically social, centered on our relationships with people who have been and are important to us. Holidays serve as temporal markers in life. By allowing people to take a break from the hectic pace of ordinary life, holidays provide a bit of escape for healing and recovery from the burdens and stresses of our everyday obligations and responsibilities. Spending time with family can be comforting, knowing that we are accepted for who we are, rather than what we do or can do for others. Family is our place of refuge where we can trust and be ourselves.

Aftersun’s protagonist is on the cusp of adolescence, awkwardly caught between childhood and adulthood – why is this liminal stage likely to induce nostalgia?

Juhl: Self-continuity, that is, the sense that one’s self in the present is connected to one’s self in the past, is psychologically comforting. However, a life transition, such as that from childhood to adolescence, may threaten self-continuity. Research has established that threats to self-continuity trigger nostalgia, and that nostalgia restores self-continuity. Thus, people may become more nostalgic during life transitions in order to maintain self-continuity.

Batcho: Adolescence is an especially powerful trigger for nostalgia, because it is fraught with conflicting emotions, just as nostalgia itself is a blend of bitter and sweet. Navigating adolescence involves the desire to hold on to the ideal world of childhood, the time when we were carefree, secure, and loved unconditionally. Childhood is a magical time of fantasy and imagination, when there seem to be no limits to what is possible. But we long also for the independence and privileges of adulthood. The angst of knowing that we can’t live in both worlds gives rise to nostalgia. At the threshold of adulthood, nostalgia serves as the thread connecting who we were in the past with who we are becoming as we move forward. The nostalgic thread gives us the courage to leave the past behind, knowing we can take the best of it with us and revisit it from time to time in reverie.

VHS tapes are used throughout the film alongside memories, their pixels cutting through reality – what is it about home videos’ that stirs up nostalgia?

Juhl: Reminders of important time periods and significant life events can trigger nostalgia. Home videos are a poignant reminder of time periods for which we feel nostalgic.

Batcho: Home videos help us relive the parts of our past we often miss the most. They have captured the people and events that made us who we are. Nostalgia is closely associated with our exploration of our identity. By watching ourselves in the past, we can assess how far we’ve come in our personal growth and our constantly changing self. Home videos are opportunities for personal reflection on how satisfied we are (or aren’t) with who we are, compared with who we once were. Have we been true to the values we believe represent our authentic self? Or has life changed us in ways that have not benefited us?

Aftersun is released in cinemas now. Find your nearest screening and book tickets at mubi​.com/​a​f​t​ersun

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