That holiday romance we never forget. The teenage coming of age story, with all its angst and conflict. Movie tropes we’ve all seen so often before that we know them inside out so, as truculent teen A J (Nell Barlow) and her family head en masse for their beachside holiday home in Sweetheart, we’re already hoping that director/writer Marley Morrison is going to give us something out of the ordinary. The good news is that she does. The not-so-good news is that she only goes so far.
April – “my name is A J!” – is less than enthusiastic about spending a week cooped up in a caravan with chirpy mum Tina (Jo Hartley), heavily pregnant older sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) and her easy going partner Steve (Samuel Anderson), plus younger sister Dayna (Tabitha Byron). She can’t think of anything worse: they all irritate her, they don’t understand her concern for the environment and they won’t let her do what she wants to. Worse still, her mother hasn’t accepted that she’s gay. But when free spirited lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith) catches her eye, things start to look up. They become friends but A J is hoping it’ll turn into something more.
In a film that covers well-trodden ground – especially when it comes to the stress-inducing friction between A J and her mum – it plays it relatively safe, although there are moments of unexpected insight. A J’s internal thoughts not only provide the narration, they also take us inside her character – her confusion about her identity and where she fits in – with a disarming honesty and more than a sting of pain. But she’s not without humour and nor is the film: it has a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous, ranging from her mother’s excitement at seeing cows as they drive to the coast to a teenager at the holiday park with ambitions to be a social media influencer.
It’s in the portrayal of the family dynamic where it really scores, familiar though it may be. While the relationship with Isla is more predictable, and somewhat rose-tinted in its effect on A J, the constant arguments between mother and daughter and the inherent tension that goes with a family holiday have a genuine ring of truth, thanks to newcomer Nell Barlow and the more familiar Jo Hartley. She, in particular, gives an impressive performance, her frustrations and concerns slowly emerging from beneath a ditsy, irritating disguise. Even when she’s physically behind her daughter and out of focus, we can all see and feel her struggle in trying to understand her daughter’s anger and life choices.
It’s hard not to be charmed by Sweetheart, even if there’s a definite echo of last year’s Days Of The Bagnold Summer about it. While it doesn’t always succeed in its ambition to up-end a convention, it has a disarming freshness that charmed at the Glasgow Film Festival – it won the Audience Award – and will no doubt capture the hearts of more. In introducing us to rising talents in Morrison and Barlow, it shows they’re capable of even more than they show us here.
Drama, Comedy | UK, 2021 | 15 | 24th September 2021 (UK) | Cinema | Peccadillo Pictures | Dir. Marley Morrison | Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella-Rae Smith, Sophia Di Martino, Samuel Anderson, Tabitha Byron
Originally posted for our 2021 BFI Flare Festival coverage | Original Post