Less Than Perfect Parenthood: Dissecting the Similarities Between Aftersun and The Lost Daughter

Man and child walking on beach at sunset
Christy Clark

Nobody’s perfect. We all have our faults. Yet for some, such as our parents, certain traits are expected unconditionally: to love, to protect, and to care for our children. Do we put too much pressure on parents? Are they held to an unachievable, unfair standard? Through these stories, we may reach an answer. Christy Clark reflects on parenthood after watching Aftersun.

I left my first viewing of Aftersun, the Oscar nominated, first full-length film of Charlotte Wells, with a sense of déjà vu beyond the English tourist prototype. I just couldn’t stop thinking about its similarity to The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal (another debut). Whether it’s a warped presentation of parenthood, a sense of regret, the scintillating heat, Mescal himself, or just general brilliance from two British leads, these films are more than passingly similar. They both leave the audience with a question too often overlooked: are parents held too rigorously to unrealistic standards? And if, when they don’t meet our expectations, do we still have sympathy for them?

The Lost Daughter portrays struggling mother Leda (Olivia Colman) on holiday in Greece. As she watches the loving Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her family, set perfectly as a foil to her, she commits a selfish act triggering a spiral of flashbacks. An unsuitable, over-worked, under-loved Mother, Leda’s memories emphasise the potential horrors of parenthood felt by many yet so often ignored in popular film. Towards the climax, in an argument with Nina, Leda describes herself as ‘an unnatural mother.’ Nina admits to having depression, and the reality that no parent is perfect shines through. So it seems Nina and Leda aren’t so different after all.

Aftersun similarly sheds light on the myth of the perfect parent. Whilst the protagonist Calum (Paul Mescal) has a loving relationship with his daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), his underlying struggles gradually overcome his role as a father. Firstly, he’s mischievous and, whilst funny and truly adoring of Sophie, at times his actions threaten her safety. One of the film’s most poignant moments sees 11-year-old Sophie invoke her own autonomy, when Calum drinks far too much to protect his daughter, finding more safety in some intoxicated adolescents than her own parent. The film emphatically closes with Queen and Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure,’ suitably named in relation to the parental pressure Calum is under, and the melancholic ending where Calum is suggested to have taken his own life.

We need to recognise that parental perfection is more often than not a mask for a lack thereof

These stories demand that we question why society subjects parents to such high standards, when, as is universal, they all struggle at times: whether that be with mental illness or even the sheer regret at having children, at being totally confined. We need to recognise that parental perfection is more often than not a mask for a lack thereof. It should take less than each protagonist’s suggested tragic demise to make us realise this.

The audience is invited into the hot, tense, allegoric heat of paradise, endeavouring them to see parents as we see everyone else. It’s imperative that we confront our own harsh expectations of those who give birth to us. Through these stories, and their determination to foreground stereotypes so often seen as taboo in the industry, these films stake their claim to be two of the most important of the decade.

Christy Clark

Featured image courtesy of Derek Thomson via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In article trailer courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes Trailers via YouTube. No changes were made to this video. 

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