GFF REVIEW: ‘Sweetheart’ (2021) is an Instant Coming of Age Classic

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Gently radical execution and gloriously rendered characters”

There is no tougher time to get to grips with our identity than as a teenager. It’s what makes the transition to adulthood such fertile ground for cinematic storytelling – there’s intense emotions, the desire to carve one’s own path, and familial rifts that come from figuring out you might not be who your parents want you to be. In her debut Sweetheart, director Marley Morrison manages to perfectly capture the painful nuances of adolescence; the struggle between doing your absolute utmost to outwardly convey a cool kind of confidence, while masking a swamp of insecurity and anxiety underneath. 

It stars Nell Barlow as AJ, a sullen, snarky 17 year old with a self-inflicted Johnny Ramone-esque bowl cut, a Hawaiian-print hat and bold orange aviator shades permanently resting on her nose. She is dragged along by her mum Tina (Jo Hartley) to a family holiday at a caravan park, along with younger sister Dayna (Tabitha Byron) as a chance for pregnant sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) and her boyfriend Steve (Samuel Anderson) to relax before the baby arrives. After scowling her way through sunbathing by the pool and cringy onsite entertainment, AJ perks up as she gets to know lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith) and her friends.

A family of characters walk towards the screen, all carrying suitcases and holiday essentials. A young girl is glued to her tablet, holding the hand of a pregnant woman. Behind them, a woman smiles holding a suitcase. Next to them, a young woman dressed in androgynous clothing walks in strides. On the end, a man holds a yoga ball and a suitcase, with a pregnancy pillow wrapped around his neck.
Image courtesy of Hazey Jane Films / Glasgow Film Festival

Though it follows fairly predictable plot beats, it’s the gently radical execution and gloriously rendered characters that solidify Sweetheart as an instant coming-of-age classic. AJ (as she wishes to be called), or April (as her family keeps referring to her), is the kind of queer, androygnous protagonist that is still desperately rare to find on screen. Clearly in the midst of trying to understand her sexuality and gender expression, her frustrated rebellion against the aggressive heteronormativity that her mother and sister keep trying to impose on her causes intense friction.

The dry wit of the script and slight dingy holiday park setting is unmistakably British. It takes place in the present day, but the bold colours found in the row of washing machines, dodgy disco lighting and golden hour sunshine emit a sense of nostalgia – just like AJ, we’re reminded of simpler childhood times, where a caravan by the beach was the best place in the world. Morrison’s visual style belies a delicate but deliberate touch; a love scene eschews any kind of gratuitous voyeurism for gentle, tactile touches, and one shot from behind AJ’s head that briefly focuses on the binarily gendered toilets she’s looking at, before she turns and walks away, is a particular standout. 

Two young woman are hidden away together in a bathroom. One is holding the other's face as they look into each other's eyes.
Image courtesy of Hazey Jane Films / Glasgow Film Festival

Relative newcomer Barlow is astounding, making AJ utterly compelling despite her spiky exterior and the details of her face so often being hidden. Magic lies in the big blue eyes hidden behind those orange-tinted glasses, and her droll, philosophical voiceover is expertly delivered. Her reserved aloofness is balanced well by Smith’s warmth as Isla, the perfect catalyst to bring AJ out of her shell. Though Isla is given little room for character development, this allows the film to focus fully on AJ’s story, and she does occasionally push back on AJ’s – and perhaps the audience’s – assumptions about her.

The family is fleshed out with strong supporting turns from Hartley and Di Martino, as a mother and sister who don’t know quite what to do with the person that AJ is becoming, but do desperately want the best for her. Anderson is a true delight as Steve, a rare kind of man that never seems to harbour any kind of darkness or ulterior motive, and who seems to be the only one on this holiday respecting AJ for who she is.

A sensitive, sharply realised depiction of someone who can’t stop standing out giving up on trying to fit in, Sweetheart reminds us that fear shouldn’t hold us back from being our most powerful, most exquisite, most authentic selves.

Director: Marley Morrison

Cast: Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella Rae Smith, Sophia Di Martino, Samuel Anderson

Header image courtesy of Hazey Jane Films / Glasgow Film Festival