Director: Marley Morrison
Screenwriter: Marley Morrison
Starring: Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Tabitha Byron, Sophia Di Martino, Samuel Anderson, Ella-Rae Smith, Steffan Cennydd
Being forced on a seaside holiday with your entire family as a painfully awkward teenager is a British right of passage. It’s even worse for the kids submerged in any kind of alternative subculture – a moment of silence for the former emo kids who had to navigate the beach wearing black skinny-jeans. For there is no greater hell on earth for anyone on the cusp of adulthood than finding themselves stuck in the sunshine, consumed by hormonal anxiety, surrounded by grannies and toddlers, and cut off from any decent WiFi connection. On holiday, there’s no hiding from the brightly-lit skies and critical eyes of every average, well-rounded adult, and there’s certainly nowhere to conceal your innermost anxieties, insecurities and wandering sense of self.
In Marley Morrison’s debut feature, Sweetheart, we meet one such suffering soul, April (Nell Barlow) – although she prefers the name A.J. Flanked by her mother, Tina, (Jo Hartley, This Is England, Eddie The Eagle) and sister (Tabitha Byron), A.J heads out to a classic, British holiday resort – the kind with corny night-time entertainment acts and sunburnt holidaymakers galore. Once there, she meets up with Lucy (Sophia Di Martino), her other sister who is heavily pregnant, and Lucy’s partner Steve (Samuel Anderson), who attempts – with cups of coffee and polite advice – to lessen the constant nagging being directed at April from all angles. Although completely accepting of A.J’s blossoming sexuality, Tina and Lucy, set in their suburban, motherly ways, are less accepting of her Billie Eilishesqué sense of style and environmentalist interests. Instead, they encourage her to spend some time in the sun and to ditch her oversized, frumpy fashion for the strappy, form-fitting floral tops they have underhandedly packed in her suitcase.
A.J has just about resigned herself to a week of complete misery when she meets Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), an impossibly beautiful lifeguard, who, intrigued by A.J’s quirky sense of style, love of elephants and offbeat humour, invites her to ditch her family and party with the resort staff. Intimidated by the group and their casual drug use, A.J pretends to be eighteen, done with the college she hates so much and ready to embark on a gap year in Indonesia to ‘knit jumpers for elephants’ (climate change means elephants feel the cold now). Isla’s interest in A.J seems keen and flirtatious, but A.J remains cautious, having already experienced a potentially romantic situation that wasn’t what she thought it was. Plus, the douchy presence of a blonde, long-haired, surfer-looking guy named Nathan (Steffan Cennydd) suggests that Isla’s affections lay elsewhere. What follows is a Lady Bird meets Butlins holiday romance, playing out against the backdrop of sunburns, sarcastic British humour and stroppy teenage hormones.
The notable absence of A.J’s father fuels tensions between the feuding family members. A.J rarely mentions her life outside of the holiday resort, but feelings of melancholy and stress surrounding the uncertain changes that have come with her parents’ recent separation run as an undercurrent throughout the film. In a voiceover narrative, A.J explains that this is the family’s first trip away without their father, so there’s a feeling of a splintered family dynamic. A.J’s mother especially is overly critical and short-tempered, not wanting her significant life event to sour a second of her children’s much-needed break in the sun. A.J’s developing sexuality, urge to explore and flourishing self-awareness act as the opposing force to the family’s desire to resist change and hold onto nostalgic memories of happier times.
Sweetheart also handles the subject of A.J’s sexuality in a remarkably refreshing way. There’s no aggression or controversy aimed at A.J for being gay, no name-calling or shaming of any kind, and her family are completely accepting of her. Sure, they find elements of her sexuality challenging to contend with, but A.J certainly isn’t outcast or othered in any negative way. It’s a welcome change of pace for the cannon of British Comedy, which is severely lacking in the way of gay characters, especially teenage lesbian characters. Sweetheart is a gay-love story, but one which doesn’t require its characters to defend themselves or enter into the sphere of bigoted debate. The film is a sure step into the mainstream, which doesn’t rely on trauma or victimhood to make audiences care about its characters – not that there’s anything wrong with those narratives; it’s just a satisfying change to see a more relaxed and fun gay love story on offer here. We also get to see A.J explore, embrace and even sometimes doubt her sexuality. Her journey isn’t straightforward or overly simplified, and the amount of room the film gifts her elevates her beyond the limitations of a classic comedy character.
Sweetheart does occasionally wander into the land of predictability, with some of the teenagers being a little bit too mopey and some story beats feeling a little bit too familiar. However, the film separates itself from the pack by introducing a real depth of comedic and honest detail: a boy named Elvis asks Nell if she likes tattoos and then proceeds to outline his plan to get a full sleeve (trust me, every girl has had this conversation before). Every detail, conversation and gag in Morrison’s script feels relevant, unpatronising and entirely reflective of the ‘Gen-Z’ experience.
Jo Hartley, who seems to have a real knack for playing concerned mothers, is a compelling and stable presence, and the rest of the cast seem to gravitate around her with ease. Nell Barlow especially delivers a dynamic and surefooted performance, and it’s almost impossible to believe that this is her first turn as the lead in a feature film.
Overall, Sweetheart is a nuanced exploration of sexuality and a much-needed, modern twist in the realm of British film. Both Barlow and Morrison show great promise and seem on track for bright careers in the industry.