Sweetheart is now showing at BFI Flare; book tickets here
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While I sat watching Marley Morrison’s debut feature, Sweetheart, I could not help but be taken back to one of my last family holidays as a teenager. The place was a remote cottage in Scotland, and I believe I was around 15 years old. My lasting memory of that holiday is not the beautiful countryside, the culture, or mum and dad trying their hardest to entertain me. No, my residing memory is one of being utterly miserable; my hormones in complete control of my mood, interests, joy, and despair. The older we get, the more we airbrush away those memories of inner turmoil. Our brains naturally focusing on the pleasure, experimentation and freedom of youth rather than the anger, frustration and moods.
Now and again, a film comes along that reminds us of the complexity of our teenage emotions and encapsulates the fear, anxiety, and excitement of those years. In 2020 that film was Simon Bird’s Days of the Bagnold Summer, and Morrison’s Sweetheart feels like it owes much to Bird’s film. However, in Sweetheart, teenage emotional turmoil finds itself dovetailed with classic LGBTQ+ coming of age themes. And while the resulting film never quite manages to reach the heights of Days of the Bagnold Summer, it is a smart, engaging and beautifully performed journey into teenage love, family, loneliness and belonging.
Seventeen-year-old A.J (Nell Barlow) is none too happy about the family summer holiday. The caravan park she attended for years as a kid, now a potential prison. The magic shows, colourful poolside loungers and game arcades jarring with her personal need for independence and control. However, with her mum, pregnant sister and boyfriend, and younger sister in tow, she endures the prospect of several weeks coupled up in a caravan.
Having recently come out, AJ is still finding her feet in a new gay world. Her confidence submerged by mood swings, mum and dads separation and a feeling of social disconnect. Therefore the horror of a caravan park in mid-July is the last place where AJ expects to discover herself. However, on meeting a young lifeguard, Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a spark of light enters AJ’s world. Isla’s confidence, vivacity and openness a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifled holiday. But can AJ let her guard down and allow Isla in? And could her last family holiday become the start of her path to confidence?
Morrison’s sharp and delightful debut is at its most assured when exploring first love, doubt and anxiety. With Nell Barlow’s performance, nothing short of exceptional in its reflections on the teenage condition. Here, Barlow ensures AJs anger, despair and isolation is lifted by brief moments of sheer joy, excitement and humour. The adolescent experience perfectly encapsulated by her character through every look, action and gesture. Meanwhile, Ella-Rae Smith’s older Isla demonstrates the change in public confidence from our mid to late teens. Her inner world still rumbling with doubt and insecurity. The tentative relationship with AJ part of her own journey to discover something deeper.
However, despite its bright, beautiful and meaningful reflections on teen love and belonging, Morrison’s movie does stumble in places. The first of these stumbles come from allowing time to explore the family backstory sitting behind AJs holiday. Here, we are given snippets of information that never tie together in creating a complete picture. AJ’s relationship with mum and her absent dad held in a bubble that feels all too distant. The second minor stumble for me lay in the sense of time and place created. With Sweetheart occasionally feeling like a 1990s period piece, mashed together with a present-day story. The result, a film that feels more like a memory than a modern reflection of the teenage experience.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, while engaging and vibrant, Sweetheart never quite manages to offer audiences anything innovative or new. Unlike recent coming of age dramas such as Cocoon and My First Summer. However, there is no doubt that Morrison’s Sweetheart is an assured, creative and undeniably enjoyable debut picture; one that will find a place in the heart of viewers young and old. And I certainly look forward to seeing what Morrison delivers next.