Written and directed by Marley Morrison, a socially awkward, environmentally conscious teenager named AJ is dragged to a coastal holiday park by her painfully ‘normal’ family, where she becomes unexpectedly captivated by a chlorine smelling, sun-loving lifeguard named Isla. Starring: Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella-Rae Smith, Sophia Di Martino, Samuel Anderson, Tabitha Byron and Steffan Cennydd.
The first impression that this film makes is an utterly British one. Setting itself in a Butlins-esque caravan park with a lead that dresses like one of the Gallaghers and throwing in some strong accents is the perfect way to establish its Brit identity. Its style and story give off a vibe reminiscent of the short lived 2005 tv series Sugar Rush; it has a very young, bright and colourful energy that’s balance with the never-ending awkwardness of being a teenager and discovering your sexuality. There’s a quality to it that also feels similar to Richard Ayoade’s Submarine. It feels modern with a nod to classic British cinema, it doesn’t try to expand past its rather modest story but it retains a stylish feel.
Its story is an interesting exploration of queer youth, the hesitancy, the brooding, the self doubt and desperation to connect with like minded people. There are a few aspects that feel new but for the most part it’s a rather familiar, but solid, drama. One of the more fresh elements is the relationship between AJ (Barlow) and her mother, in the sense that while she accepts AJ’s sexuality, she also weaponizes it against her in retaliation to the resentment she holds over not having a more feminine or sociable daughter. It’s a compelling drama, it may not entirely get deeply beneath of the surface of the issues it touches upon but it is a sweet and relatable story of family life. It features a classic element of teen stories, a simple miscommunication which is entirely blown out of proportion in a fit of intense sensitivity and vulnerability, one that any who’ve been through their teenage years will recognise.
Nell Barlow’s AJ is undeniably the centre of this film, her performance is akin to Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade for how intensely relatable and sympathetic it is, in it’s hugely accurate portrayal of a 17-year-old. Pairing anyone with Jo Hartley is always a good idea, she’s a massively underappreciated actress who’s been giving consistently great performances for years. She taps into the perfect balance of comedy and drama, getting the best of both worlds, creating something both hilarious and heart-breaking. The rest of the cast is similarly well chosen, Ella Rae-Smith is the easily judged with more to offer than you assume popular girl and she brings a lot of charm to the role, Sophie Di Martino and Samuel Anderson are a brilliant, very modern couple, showing the typical experience of those expecting today.
Sweetheart is a delightfully British and modern exploration of queer youth. It’s funny and relatable, led by a fantastic cast giving layered performances, particularly the stellar performance from Nell Barlow in her first lead role. Morrison has created a fresh and stylish atmosphere though its story hits a lot of familiar points, but it’s a huge show of talent from this very young filmmaker and it will be interesting to see what they do next.