Having been forced to go on holiday, 17-year-old April (Nell Barlow) – who insists on being called AJ – is in a permanent state of annoyed as she’s made to spend quality time with her mum (Jo Hartley), her little sister Dayna (Tabitha Byron), her older, pregnant sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) and Lucy’s boyfriend Steve (Samuel Anderson). AJ has a difficult relationship with all of them aside from Steve, who often looks out for her. Things start to look up when AJ meets Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), one of the lifeguards at the holiday park. As romance blossoms, she opens up to the possibility that the holiday might be better than she anticipated, and she starts to have a bit of fun.
Being a teenager isn’t the greatest experience for everyone. It’s a difficult time when we are forced to figure out our place in the world and discover who we are and what we are like. AJ is just like any other typical teenager: she has behavioural issues cropping up at school, no friends to speak of, she’s in a constant mood and displays teen angst that we are all familiar with. She clashes with her ‘princess type’ older sister, who looks down at her, and she barely registers her younger sister. Plus, she gets a constant barrage of questions and statements thrown at her by her mum; she doesn’t have room to breathe. Her only ally is Steve, who treats her normally and is friendly, upbeat and just a genuinely nice person around her; she never once gets annoyed with him.
AJ is met with nothing but grief from her family, causing her to lash out verbally and without care toward everyone around her. She comes across as an unpleasant and selfish person for most of the film. If feels difficult to excuse her actions simply because she’s ‘going through something’, as there aren’t any substantial reasons for her to act so terribly aside from the fact that she is lonely, hormonal and getting used to being herself. However, eventually, AJ recognises her flaws and apologises, which makes her somewhat likeable toward the end. Comedic moments – mostly involving AJ’s family – balance out the teenage mood swings and argumentative outbursts, helping the film to flow. However, the film fails to properly explore the dynamics between AJ and her sisters, which is a shame as it would have been nice to see their relationships in more depth.
Aside from the family drama, the film focuses on AJ’s romance with Isla—who AJ finds attractive from the minute she sees her photo hanging up on the wall in the women’s changing rooms. They develop a tentative friendship and awkward romance. Their relationship is very much like any teenage encounter: quick to start and end. Still, the impression is – to them at least – that their time spent together feels more significant than a one-week holiday romance. These kind of powerful and all-consuming emotions are difficult to express, but writer and director Marley Morrison has a perfect handle on them. Another refreshing aspect of the film is that AJ doesn’t have a big ‘coming out’ moment; her family already know that she is gay and are absolutely fine about it.
Overall, Sweetheart is a well made and heart-warming first feature by Marley Morrison. The family dynamics, arguments and discussions she crafts are very natural and fit believably around AJ and her blossoming sexuality. However, although family factor into the film a lot, this narrative belongs to AJ— a moody teenager and wannabe environmental activist who has a big crush on a lifeguard at a holiday park.
Dir: Marley Morrison
Prd: Michelle Antoniades
Scr: Marley Morrison
Cast: Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella-Rae Smith
DoP: Emily Almond Barr, Matthew Wicks
Running time: 103 minutes
Sweetheart is streaming on BFI player from 17 – 28 March throughout BFI Flare.