Sweetheart is now showing at BFI Flare; book tickets here.
While 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 fourteen. My lasting memory of that holiday was not the beautiful countryside, the culture, or Mum and Dad trying their hardest to entertain me; it was being utterly miserable. The older we get, the more we airbrush away those memories in favour of a rose-tinted adult view of youth.
However, now and again, a film comes along that reminds us of the complexity of our teenage emotions and the fear, anxiety, and excitement of adolescence. In 2020 that film was Simon Bird’s Days of the Bagnold Summer, and this year we are offered Sweetheart, a classic LGBTQ+ coming-of-age movie with deep undercurrents of emotion and escape.
Seventeen-year-old AJ (Nell Barlow) is far from elated or excited by the prospect of a family summer holiday. In fact, the caravan park she attended for years as a kid now feels like a potential prison of forced magic shows, colourful poolside loungers and lousy arcade games. However, with her mum, pregnant sister and boyfriend, and her younger sister in tow, she is set to endure the horror the summer has to offer.
Having recently come out, AJ is still finding her feet in a new and exciting gay world, but this world is also hampered by her mood swings, lack of confidence and her parent’s separation. But on meeting a young lifeguard, Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a spark of light flickers in AJ’s world. Isla is confident, optimistic and open, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise closeted holiday from hell. But can AJ let her guard down and allow Isla in?
Morrison’s delightfully sharp debut feature may be considered a simple coming-of-age seaside adventure where first love, doubt and anxiety mix, but it’s so much more. Nell Barlow’s performance is nothing short of exceptional in its reflections on the horrors and joys of adolescence. Barlow ensures AJs anger, despair and isolation are balanced by brief moments of excitement and humour, perfectly encapsulating the fluctuating moods of youth in every look, action and gesture.
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Morrison’s movie stumbles in places, from a lack of time to fully explore the family dynamics to a slightly confused sense of time and place. But none of those stumbles takes away from Morrison’s engaging and vibrant coming-of-age tale or the honesty that sits at its heart. While Sweetheart never quite manages to reach the heights of recent movies like Cocoon and My First Summer, it is an assured, creative and undeniably enjoyable debut picture that will find a place in the heart.