‘Sweetheart’ Is A Refreshingly Honest Debut: BFI Flare Review

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sweetheart film review bfi flare

Family tensions simmer and new flames spark at a British holiday caravan site in Sweetheart, an honest and witty debut from director Marley Morrison. Lucy Clarke reviews.

If I asked you when you were at your most annoying, teenagehood would be a popular answer. The ages of 13–18 are so awkward that by the time you’ve really grown up, the embarrassment you felt at that age is concealed by a collective amnesia.

Adults misremember their teenage life, and glamorous actors in their mid-twenties are often cast as seventeen-year-olds in TV shows. However Marley Morrison’s debut, Sweetheart, isn’t afraid of showing teenage life, warts, and all. It’s a hilariously accurate British comedy, which might cause you to roll your eyes at your adolescent self.

AJ (Nell Barlow), or April, as her mother insists on calling her, has been dragged along on a family holiday. She used to love the static caravan by the seaside when she was younger, but now she’s dismayed that there is no WiFi, and she would have rather stayed at home. She makes it abundantly clear that she doesn’t want to be here. Instead, she lectures on environmentalism and reads books by the pool, rather than getting stuck into the holiday camp’s rota of activities. She and her mum, Tina (Jo Hartley), fight constantly. Tina is far more interested in her youngest daughter, Dayna (Tabitha Byron) and her oldest, Lucy (Sophia Di Martino), who is pregnant and has taken one last holiday just before her baby arrives. The only person in this dysfunctional family who understands AJ is Lucy’s happy-go-lucky boyfriend, Steve (Samuel Anderson).

On a traditional British holiday, you’d be lucky to have a few days of sunshine in a week of drizzly rain, but the holiday atmosphere tends to make up for the shocking weather. On prominent beaches up and down the country, there are pastel-painted beach huts, and no seaside break would be complete without a fluffy 99 ice cream pierced by a flake. The set design in Sweetheart is no exception, and even the laundrette’s washing machines are painted in bright colours. But unlike the other members of her family who are dressed for the holiday or the lifeguards who wear bright yellow t-shirts, AJ stands out in her frumpy black clothing and bucket hat. Director Marley Morrison silently confirms that this isn’t where AJ fits in, and her mood can’t even be lightened by a suggestion of sunlight in the sky. She sticks out like a sore thumb, but the bright music choices do not. While the summery beats nod to a fun escape of a week-long holiday, there’s a slight rebellious nature to the songs, which echo AJ’s need to be accepted for who she is.

There’s something inherently contradictory about teenagers. Tina snaps at her that her whims “change every five minutes” when AJ asks why she can’t do what she wants. This hot and cold nature is often written as an irritation rather than dealt with sympathetically. Morrison avoids this problem entirely by allowing AJ to narrate the film. Along with a witty and slick script, Nell Barlow is perfectly cast. She drily captures this teen’s voice as the black sheep of the family with her band t-shirts and sardonic remarks. Until she catches the eye of the pretty lifeguard, Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), AJ is convinced that this holiday is going to be awful. Romance crackles between them like a summer storm, but AJ is convinced that she’s got the wrong end of the stick, thinking that Isla is far too pretty to be interested in girls. She places everyone she meets into boxes with stereotypical labels, including those who want to love her.

But of course, AJ doesn’t fit into a neat little box. Her complicated relationship with her mum dominates the film. However, although their relationship is stretched to exasperation, it’s obvious that they still love each other. In this refreshingly honest debut, there are glimpses of Greta Gerwig’s irreverent Lady Bird here, but Morrison is careful not to demonise either side of this warring relationship. Instead, Sweetheart offers a portrait of a family who love each other but struggle to live with each other.  

Isla and AJ’s romance might take a slower pace than the romance in Grease’s song Summer Nights, but unfortunately, too much of the runtime is taken up by heterosexual love stories. Both AJ and Isla experiment with boys, even if AJ only does so because she is bored and angry. The trip really is for Lucy to have one last week of fun before she and Steve become parents, and there’s a soft focus on their relationship. Tina even has a flirtatious fling with the on-site magician. This film might be more focussed on the family dynamics of this very dysfunctional family, but sometimes even AJ’s queerness is slightly sidelined.

The Verdict

Morrison’s drama calmy understands the erratic nature of teenage life, and Nell Barlow’s characterisation is witty and relatable. Funny and joyful in a way that only a British holiday on a drizzly beach can be, Sweetheart is a lovely coming-of-age film that’s more about learning how to cope with your mother than coming out of the closet.

Review: 8/10 

Words by Lucy Clarke

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