Writer and Director: Marley Morrison
A cow is just a cow, April’s mum Tina explains in the opening scene of Marley Morrison’s Sweetheart, showing as part of BFI Flare 2021, as an over-analytical teen goes on a troubled break with her broken family to a holiday park. This sweet British comedy set in a seaside caravan park loses a bit of focus in the second half but offers a different perspective on the summer romance film.
17-year-old April – known as AJ – reluctantly goes on holiday with her mum, her younger sister and her much older sister who is expecting a baby. Angry with everything, her family and refusing to return to school to finish her A-levels, AJ’s world suddenly expands when she meets lifeguard Isla, but discovering who she really is proves a rocky road.
The two strands of Morrison’s film examining AJ’s family life and the parentless teens she falls in with work quite differently. The dynamic within the first group is very convincing with a naturalness that makes them feel like a real family as they bicker, sit in resentful silence, support one another and remember how much they really care. All of these scenes feel very normal and with subtle nods to an absent father and life on a budget, the audience quickly invests in the idea of this family as decent people doing their best to get by.
The teen romance, while shot with sensitivity, feels far too rushed by comparison with characters coming to rely on one another too quickly. When Isla and AJ argue outside the caravan in the third act, it feels melodramatic, their connection not well enough established after only a couple of meetings to justify the level of expectation they have of each other or the bitterness they express.
The character of AJ is largely sympathetic and Morrison’s film explores the various coming-of-age tropes with care; making friends, drinking, first kisses and not quite knowing who you are when everyone else’s life seems easy and settled. And while AJ can sometimes be quite difficult to empathise with against the reasonable interventions of her family, Morrison lets a mutual appreciation and understanding develop between them that makes for a more satisfying conclusion.
Nell Barlow as AJ acts as both star and narrator, providing voiceover insight that explain how she feels or why her world seems so complicated. There is a sense of displacement in Barlow’s performance that resonates and she captures well that feeling of nervous reluctance to try things for the first time while longing to be something more.
Jo Hartley is quietly brilliantly as mum Tina, a supportive, kind presence who sets clear rules for her children but wants them to be happy. Morrison gives Tina a snatched subplot of her own, a woman seeing her children grow up and working hard to keep her family together while she still can, but Hartley fills in the gaps with a wonderfully rounded performance.
Among the supporting cast, Ella-Rae Smith tries a little too hard to make Isla seem carefree and fun so the chemistry with AJ never quite convinces. Samuel Anderson as long-suffering but happy Steve and Sophia Di Martino as Lucy add a different adult dimension and both spark well with Barlow in the family sections.
This British comedy is a very BFI festival selection and not dissimilar to Days of the Bagnold Summer in its exploration of parental relationship and the end of childhood. Sweetheart feels a little drawn out but captures the terrifying excitement and vulnerability of first love.
BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021