BFI Flare 2021

Sweetheart review – painfully British tale of family and growing up

Marley Morrison’s feature debut, set in a coastal caravan park, blends awkward antics and queer love to sweet but uneven results

When you’re a surly teen, a week away at a holiday camp with your family can feel like a prison sentence. With the car packed to the brim with pool inflatables, Factor 50 and mother-daughter tension, a long drive is just the precursor to the utter boredom that awaits 17-year-old AJ (Nell Barlow). Or so she thinks.

Set in a coastal caravan park, Marley Morrison’s feature debut, Sweetheart, is a painfully British – and relatable – tale of family dynamics and growing up. Luckily, AJ finds sweet salvation in the form of Isla, the stunning holiday park lifeguard, who take this unassuming teen from Luton under her wing. Dazed by her crush and her contempt for her embarrassing family, AJ’s week away sees her embark on a journey of first love and figuring stuff out.

Morrison presents Sweetheart through AJ’s lens: the caravan park’s gloomy, grey tones are immediately interrupted by a sweet, dreamy glow (and a Baywatch-esque slow-mo effect) that surrounds Isla every time AJ spots her. Kids sitting on garden chairs, downing cheap beer and doing balloons, are seen as the epitome of cool, while cringe-worthy scenes of the holiday park magician entertaining the crowd are excruciatingly played out in real time, forcing us to suffer the awkward pauses and half-hearted claps. AJ's sardonic wit overlays most scenes in a mumbly voiceover, repeatedly calling out her well-meaning mother and pregnant older sister.

Whilst this alignment works for a majority of the film, being so ingrained with AJ’s perspective eventually begins to feel like a hindrance. Attaching the audience to her doom and gloom begins to affect the pacing and – a times – allows the film to become a little boring. AJ’s apathetic tone eventually overwhelms the film, making it difficult to connect with the character, dimming the impact of her growth.

Though Sweetheart goes a little too far in replicating the slog of a family holiday, there’s no denying this is a refreshing take on the coming-of-age drama. Morrison seamlessly integrates a queer narrative into a tale of family squabbles, completely normalising AJ’s sexuality and her mother and sister’s response to it (they jokingly quip that she should dress like a “normal” lesbian, like Jodie Foster). Ultimately, it's Barlow who's the standout star, playing AJ with such subtle sweetness and sincerity that it's worth putting up with the film's shortcomings.

Sweetheart was screened as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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