By Shelby Sveiven
What could a teenager and a man in his 30’s have in common? A boy navigating falling in love and a man going on a vacation with his daughter? A college student and a guy in between work? Maybe more than you think. There are many parallels between Paul Mescal’s characters Connell Waldron from the TV adaptation of Normal People, and Calum Paterson in the film Aftersun.
If you want to watch these stories, I’d recommend going in as blind as possible in order to get the best experience. I went into Normal People having read the book, but I almost wished I didn’t know the story in its entirety. I had no idea what Aftersun was about, and I think as a viewer this made my experience much more impactful.
This article has heavy spoilers for both of these stories, so know that before going into it. But I highly recommend watching them, then coming back to this!
From the cinematography to the soundtracks, both of these stories are impeccably beautiful. Normal People follows the falling in and out of love for two young people who are trying to figure themselves, and the world, out. It’s a messy, joyous, and heartbreaking portrayal of what it’s like to be a young person and what it means to be a partner.
Aftersun tells the story of a young father and his daughter as they go on a summer vacation in Turkey. What his daughter doesn’t know is that he is battling a very serious depression, but the audience gets a window into both of their experiences, as well as the daughter reflecting on the experience when she is his age.
But Paul Mescal’s portrayal is really where these characters get to shine. He imbues his roles with a nuance that is hard to pin down, but is noticeable for someone who has consumed a lot of his work. Is it charm? Is it being able to balance humor and seriousness? Is it male characters having the opportunity to be openly melancholic? I don’t know, but I could list many scenes where he demonstrates these qualities.
And because of this nuance, some of his characters have similar pieces of characterization that can be cross-checked across his work. A few of these similarities I have found between Connell and Calum are the unique dynamic they have with the women in their lives, their struggles with mental health (specifically depression), and how they’re each searching for their identity.
(image: Calum holding Sophie, Aftersun / text: Sally Rooney, Normal People)
Dynamics with women in their life.
From the beginning of their character arcs, we know that Connell and Calum have an interesting dynamic with the women in their life.
Connell’s mom is the housecleaner for his classmate (and twenty pages later, love interest) Marianne, and there is a class divide between the two teenagers. They share a back-and-forth dialogue in her kitchen over test scores while she eats Nutella off a spoon. On the car ride home his mother, Lorraine, scolds him for his deficit of kindness towards Marianne.
Calum has a young daughter, Sophie, who, in the opening pages of the screenplay, records moments of their plane ride to Turkey on a summer holiday in the late 90’s. In this scene, he switches between playfully annoyed and serious, described as “boyish until closely scrutinised” and “dark around the eyes” on the same page. I only read the screenplay after watching the movie, but it is clear where his characterization was defined and ultimately adapted to the screen.
In the first 30-or-so pages of Normal People, we see Connell and Marianne’s relationship shift from acquaintances to confidants to not-quite-partners, but nonetheless they become increasingly intimate within a short period of time.
The narrative shifts back and forth between their perspectives, and on page 27, (his perspective), we get a glimpse at his hasty practice of writing down moments in their relationship, “as if he wants to re-create a precise copy of Marianne in print, as if he can preserve her completely for future review.”
This attempt at preserving the presence of a loved one is reflected in Aftersun, where Sophie’s recordings, as well as various non-diegetic sounds like the clicking and whirring of tapes in a camera, are interspersed throughout two timelines—the summer in Turkey with her father, and two decades later, when we see Sophie as an adult, watching these tapes back.
The first time Connell tells Marianne he loves her is 46 pages in, after a school event in which she got assaulted by a man a few years older than them. When she confides in Connell that her father used to hit her and her mother, he tells her he would never hurt her, and that he loves her.
This moment is from Marianne’s perspective, and is described as “unbearably intense” even in memory. The exposition tells how “even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.”
Rereading that passage as I analyzed these works for this article, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Sophie’s relationship with Calum. Aftersun, while so subtextually about Calum’s depression and hopelessness, is also about an 11 year old girl on a trip with her father, experiencing more independence for the first time. Throughout the film, we see her learn how to navigate conversations with teenagers, and even romantic attraction to a boy around her age, even as Calum slips further and further away.
Calum and Connell are not defined by the women in their lives, any more than they are defined by their struggles with mental health, but they are key components in their characterization, and their relatability to the audience.
As you’d know if you’d watched (or read) either of these pieces, Connell does not become who he is without Marianne, and vice versa. Sophie cannot become the woman she does in the interspersed scenes without the choices and experiences of Calum, and vice versa.
These women are integral to each of these stories, and help bring out a tenderness in Mescal’s characters that balances out the tone and draws the audience in.
(image: Calum crying, Aftersun / text: Sally Rooney, Normal People)
One of the main factors that differentiates Paul Mescal’s characters from other men in contemporary fiction is the struggles with mental health that they represent, in a nuanced, subtle way.
To everyone else in their world, they appear, for the most part, whole. They go about daily tasks, navigate relationships, and are emotionally dependable. While in school Connell is a rugby player and a generally popular guy who drinks at parties and has lots of friends. Throughout Aftersun, we see Calum as a caring father and young man navigating fatherhood as well as personhood.
But when these characters are alone, when there is not the buffer of another person or an objective to reach, they fold into themselves. Connell is very introspective, and frequently, in moments of tenderness with Marianne, finds even himself surprised at his thoughts.
On page 26, he is described as feeling a “pleasurable sorrow” while laying in bed with Marianne, and even further, that “Moments of emotional pain arrived like this, meaningless or at least indecipherable.”
He is a character on the precipice of so many things, and finds himself overwhelmed by the possibilities for his life. At the same time, he is so ready to break out of the small town he has been in his entire life, and seek a future outside of the friendships that aren’t entirely serving him and a community that doesn’t truly understand him.
In this way, Connell understands himself more than Calum, or is at least more forthcoming about his self awareness.
In the last half of Normal People, after the suicide of one of his and Marianne’s classmates from school, Connell decides to visit a therapist at his college. This is one of the most poignant scenes of both the book and the show, and where the audience sees Connell truly face himself for the first time.
Through tears, he admits, “I just feel like I left Carricklea thinking I could have a different life,” and continues, “But I hate it here, and now I can never go back there again…I can never get that life back.”
Throughout Aftersun we see Calum come to terms with similar feelings, as, in his scenes separate from Sophie, he is very clearly struggling with his mental health, isolating himself and disassociating from his reality. It is clear to the viewer that he is not where he thought he’d be at his age, and this self-awareness is weighing on him.
(image: Calum standing in a hallway, Aftersun / text: Sally Rooney, Normal People)
Unsure of who they are.
The final core similarity between these two characters is their footing in two different worlds. Connell between childhood and adulthood, and Calum between young adulthood and fatherhood.
Connell is trying to figure out the man he wants to be, the man he is capable of being, and the man he is to everyone else in his life. Calum is facing demons he can’t fully articulate, in addition to being regarded with less respect than he ought to be, as he’s mistaken for Sophie’s older brother.
There is a recurring motif in Aftersun where, every so often, it flashes to a rave scene, where we see an adult version of Sophie, obscured by strobing lights and bodies in between her and the camera. This happens several times, and by the last few, it’s clear that adult Sophie is trying to prise through the crowd and reach Calum (who appears the same as on their summer vacation; he hasn’t aged a day), who is dancing in a daze on the opposite side of the crowd.
The most gripping use of this motif is in one of the last scenes of the film, where Calum takes Sophie out to dance near the end of their trip. He tries to get her to dance, with his clunky dance moves and goofy, very paternal charm, and she, like all kids, initially refuses. But as he continues, she relents and dances with him.
What happens next is a sporadic, heart-wrenching cut back and forth between a bright, honey-colored memory of a young girl and her father dancing, and a cold, nightmarish scene of a woman trying to reach her father, to help him, and failing.
The last scene of the film is Calum dropping Sophie off at the airport, and the camera stays on him as he lowers his camera (which he used to record all the footage we see), turns around, and walks through double doors. For the entire shot the audience assumes he will emerge into a different wing of the airport, or maybe out into sunlight, but instead, he walks into the rave, strobing black and white.
As a last attempt at analyzing the similarities between Calum and Connell, I will leave you with this quote from page 29 of Normal People, where Connell’s internal dialogue reads, “For a moment it seems possible to keep both worlds, both versions of his life, and to move in between them just like moving through a door.”