Sweetheart

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sweetheart
"A storyline that sometimes feels rushed or contrived is balanced here by a solid performance from Hartley and a tender one from Barlow." | Photo: JD Dillard

Sun, sea, sand and the opportunity to spend time with the family. When you're 15, what could be worse? AJ (Nell Barlow) really doesn't want to go on holiday. She insists she'd be fine at home, and that seems believable enough, because she doesn't come across as someone who has friends to get in trouble with, but her mother (Jo Hartley) disagrees. To make matters worse, her mother has secretly emptied her suitcase and filled it with clothes that she thinks will help her look pretty and feel happy, meaning she has only one thing to wear that makes her feel like herself. Of course, if AJ complains, after they've crammed themselves into the caravan with her pregnant older sister and her pregnant older sister's boyfriend and her younger sister, she's the one who gets told that she's spoiling it for everyone.

There's not a lot of self-awareness to go round here, though one can see how it might have been difficult for AJ to develop it. She desperately needs to get out and start living life on her own terms, away from a family who don't even respect her preferred name (weirdly, writer/director Marley Morrison seems to think it would sound unusual to other teenagers too), but she's still young enough to make mistakes, still unfamiliar with her limits. Her pregnant sister's boyfriend is sympathetic to this and seems grateful for her presence, if only as an antidote to all that prim heterofemininity, but AJ is so accustomed to resenting everything that she doesn't show much gratitude

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What will cheer her up, if the familiar logic of films like this is anything to go by, is a little bit of holiday romance. It's convenient, then, that there's an object of desire immediately on hand: tall, toned and popular Isla (Ella-Rae Smith). AJ, however, has that particular brand of youthful queer self-consciousness that leads to the conviction that every really good looking girl is straight, or at least unavailable, so she simply tags along and doesn't know what to say. Isla, for her part, knows what she wants physically but is terrible at relationships - even purely social ones - perhaps because her job means that she rarely gets to spend time with anyone for more than two weeks. What happens between them is awkward and messy and very true to life - all but for a heightened Eighties high school movie-style ending which still makes a degree of sense in that it reflects the emotional state of the young characters.

There's a clash of realities at work here, between the intense, dream-like experience of first love and the mundane expectation that she should watch her little sister and be back at a sensible time. Invisibly, to her, her mother is still reeling from the impact of a relationship break-up and the strain of single motherhood. She too could do with some romance, or at least a quick shag, and she's not too proud to go looking for it. Morrison understands the importance of traditional British holiday camps as an escape from reality, a place of joyous sleaze and opportunity which the neighbours don't need to know about - for removed from the emotional intensity of AJ's life but a complicating factor nonetheless.

A storyline that sometimes feels rushed or contrived is balanced here by a solid performance from Hartley and a tender one from Barlow (in spite of all AJ's sulking).There are some great bits of dialogue marked by that gift for observing casual cruelty that is particular to Northern English humour. Sweetheart is Morrison's first film and it doesn't feel as if she's quite got into her groove yet, but there's certainly talent on display in this slight yet heartfelt tale.

Reviewed on: 04 Mar 2021
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A socially awkward, environmentally conscious teenager is dragged to a coastal holiday park by her painfully family, where she becomes unexpectedly captivated by a chlorine smelling, sun-loving lifeguard.

Director: Marley Morrison

Writer: Marley Morrison

Starring: Nell Barlow, Sophia Di Martino, Ella-Rae Smith, Jo Hartley, Samuel Anderson, Steffan Cennydd

Year: 2021

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: UK


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