Seventeen-year-old A.J (Nell Barlow) is dragged away on a family holiday by her mother. Joined by her older pregnant sister and her boyfriend, as well as her younger sister, A.J really isn’t thrilled by the prospect of being trapped in a caravan park with a family that doesn’t understand her. Things start to look up however, after an encounter with lifeguard, Isla (Ella-Rae Smith). Isla is bubbly, outgoing, and confident; the polar opposite to A.J’s shy, introverted, and quiet persona, yet despite their differences, the pair strike up an unlikely friendship. As A.J’s feelings develop into something more, beginning to become the stirrings of first love, she finds her whole world about to change.
There have been many films over the years that have tackled the awkward experience of being a teenager. Most recently was the fantastic Eighth Grade, and whilst Sweetheart shares some spiritual elements, is very much its own, very British, exploration of the teen experience. At seventeen, A.J is a little older than we’re used to seeing in a ‘coming-of-age’ story, with most focusing on those dreaded school years. Sweetheart instead focuses on the first flourishes of love and sets it within the constraints of a holiday romance. Writer and director Marley Morrison switches things up by adding a LGBTQIA+ component to the story, as A.J identifies as being a lesbian. This complicates her feelings and relationship with Isla as A.J has to work out, not only whether Isla likes her, but also whether she’s even into girls at all.
Love is a key theme with Morrison’s work in Sweetheart. The main story is centered around A.J and her crush, but there’s also a lot of warmth to be found within this oddball family. Scenes between A.J and her sister’s boyfriend Steve are some of the more touching of the film, with him seemingly being the only adult capable of communicating with A.J as she wishes. A real sense of warmth flows through the film, buoyed by some very British comedic moments, adding a soothing balm to the occasion moment of raw and jagged emotion.
Narration is a tried and tested method of getting into your lead character’s head, and Morrison utilizes the technique to sync the viewer to A.J’s outlook on life. A.J is the typical teen drama queen, believing every little thing to be a way bigger deal than it actually is. In hindsight, it’s a trait that most of us will recognise from ourselves at that age and the distance in time helps coat things in a more humourful tone. Barlow’s portrayal is note-perfect, her delivery striking that balance between teenage melodrama and tongue-in-check nod to the audience. Visually, A.J has a very distinctive aesthetic; dressing like a reject from the nineties Brit-pop era, complete with bucket hat, tinted sunglasses, and oversized baggy clothes. It’s such a stylised and layered costume that Barlow and her performance could have become swamped and lost, but Barlow manages to communicate and convey vast emotions even from underneath the piles of clothing. It’s hard to emote from behind rose-tinted glasses and beneath a bucket hat, but Barlow’s talent burns through and makes A.J a teen to remember for years to come.
The dynamic between Barlow and Smith is touchingly sweet and tender. Their relationship has a pure and innocent quality to it, one that perfectly captures all that enigmatic angst of those “do they like me too?” feelings. Smith portrays Isla in a contradicted manner, double readings and meanings can be read into her every word and action, and leaves the viewer as confused as A.J as to whether her feelings are fantasy or reality. It’s a lovely approach from Morrison; one more focused on feelings than titillation.
Every movie teen needs a put upon parent, with the duties falling onto the shoulders of Jo Hartley here. Over the years Hartley has played many fantastic movie mothers – Eddie the Eagle being a particular highlight – and here she adds another brilliant on-screen mum to her repertoire as Tina. The matriarch has bought her family away to try and build bridges, just wanting everyone to have a nice holiday together. With there being around ten years between each daughter, and therefore them all at very different chapters of their lives, things of course do not go smoothly. A.J’s attitude exacerbates things and rows and misunderstandings ensue. The exchanges between Tina and A.J – or April as Tina insists on calling her – are arguments that many will identify with, and although malicious, are coming from places of love.
Despite our lead character’s slightly older age, Sweetheart isn’t a gritty and harsh exposé of teen life that some might anticipate. Yes there are instances of teen drinking and partying, but they are undertaken within a relatively safe space, with no dangerous outcomes. Many teen stories play too heavily into tropes of these environments leading to horribly consequences, and whilst it is important to highlight those dangers, it is equally vital to show that they can just be fun rites of passage.
The caravan park setting of Freshwater in Dorset is removed enough from the trappings of everywhere around, that it creates a fully formed world in which the characters can play. With no distractions from other environmental locations, the sameness of the endless lines of caravans blur firmly into the background enabling the focus to purely hone in on A.J’s holiday experience. Although set in modern times, thanks to the locale, costuming and universal themes, Sweetheart feels entirely timeless. The setting and plotting may draw comparisons from some to last year’s Make-Up, but apart from sharing some thematic similarities, Sweetheart is a much more jovial and accessible story. With Sweetheart Marley Morrison captures the feelings of first love inside the experiences of the British holiday experience and creates a film that is comfortingly warm, charmingly awkward, and quintessentially British.
Sweetheart was reviewed at Glasgow Film Festival 2021.
Tapping into an underrepresented leading character, Sweetheart is sure to become a firm coming-of-age favourite that wears its openness and inclusivity with pride. Morrison balances the humour and pathos beautifully, creating an awkwardly accurate portrayal of teen love.