There seems to be an interesting trend occurring in British Queer cinema – one of self-discovery and exploration within holiday parks. This was kicked off by Claire Oakley’s Make Up, a dark and brooding psychosexual endeavor with shades of The Wicker Man painted into its style, and now we have Marley Morrison’s Sweetheart. Far less intoxicatingly bewitching than Make Up, Morrison adopts a strong comedic flair as the driving force, as angsty 17-year-old AJ (Nell Barlow), looking like the lovechild of Maya Hawke and Asa Butterfield, is trapped on a holiday with her family and finds herself falling for lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith).
AJ is your typical Gen Z adolescent – she has a passionate love for the environment, trying to go vegan, and can’t seem to make her mind up over her future. She’s often bristling against conversation with her family and evidently never wanted to come on holiday in the first place. It feels like an authentic portrait of a teenager, perhaps almost too authentic. Prior to Isla’s introduction, the way AJ carries herself becomes more irritating than endearing, her narration agonizingly angsty and lofty of greater ambitions for herself – there’s no doubt there’s a bit of a superiority complex kicking around underneath that bucket hat glued to her head. The difficulty with criticizing AJ like this is that it does feel very close to the mentality of a 17-year-old, but perhaps AJ self-promotes herself just a little too much for me to get on board with her entirely.
This does change dramatically when she meets Isla, and the chemistry and relationship between the pair is brilliant. Barlow is excellent as she melts whenever Isla’s around, all the angst and know-it-all nature disappearing as she pushes this mantra of ‘be cool, be cool’ to the forefront. We’ve all become hyper-aware of how we’re perceived in the face of someone we like, and Barlow captures that in an honestly endearing manner. It almost feels as though there’s an invisible chain that locks both AJ and Isla together, constantly pulling them closer and closer together with every interaction until finally the tension could even blow up a pressure cooker. AJ and Isla look good together, literally, down to their costumes which are color-coded to be visually pleasing to the eye – red and blue. There are little details from Morrison’s production team which show a thoughtfulness to how our characters present themselves – AJ’s glasses are a particular point of fascination. She wears them throughout most of the film, serving as a barrier in many ways – it’s often said the eyes betray the emotions you’re feeling, so AJ guards that most precious doorway. It’s not until Isla that she fully relinquishes them, allowing her to gaze into AJ honestly and fully, actually seeing her. The main problem with Sweetheart is that it doesn’t stay this way. Morrison falls into generic script conventions of misunderstanding a situation multiple times, forcing AJ and Isla further apart as the film continues – by doing so, she’s actively undermining the sweetest part.
The considerable time that AJ and Isla spend apart is only worsened by continual outbursts by AJ, making her appear cruel and cold-hearted. It comes off as though Isla has committed some grand crime when every crux of their problems lies with AJ herself. It could be said that this is an attempt at reflecting a teenager’s inability to properly express themselves emotionally for fear of rejection, or perhaps the internalization of fear and self-doubt lesbians feel from queer-baiting straight girls. However, it pushes you against AJ rather than with her – she fights with Isla, her mother, and her sister and every time it feels as though the other is more in the right than AJ herself. By continuing to fight and placing blame on everyone except herself, she becomes thoroughly unsympathetic.
Although Morrison’s emotional writing may falter, she definitely knows how to write a good joke or two, because Sweetheart has many. Whether it be from AJ’s ‘fun facts’ about the world dying, or dopey worker Elvis talking about how he ‘loves lesbians’, there is a lot of humor to be found in Sweetheart. It’s difficult to express, but the humor reflects the film’s sentimentality well, as the jokes always feel organic and genuine rather than forced in an attempt to make you laugh. They’re also peppered in, so each one is a little surprise throughout. Ultimately, Sweetheart is by no means a bad film – it’s just that AJ makes it taste a little more sour than the sweetness we’re promised.
Sweetheart will be released on September 24th.