Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Marley Morrison
Writer: Marley Morrison
Stars: Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella-Rae Smith, Sophia Di Martino, Samuel Anderson, Tabitha Byron, Steffan Cennydd
By Calum Cooper
Marley Morrison’s directorial debut “Sweetheart” (2021) is a refreshing take on the anxieties of self identity. It takes the classic British holiday location as well as all of its youthful eccentricities, and uses it as a backdrop for a storm of emotions and insecurity. This leaves us with a story that boasts resounding empathy and a measured heart.
Newcomer Nell Barlow is the 17-year-old April-Jane, who prefers to go by AJ, much to the dismay of her mother Tina (Jo Hartley). After a presumably messy divorce, Tina takes AJ and her sisters including the heavily pregnant Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) and her boyfriend Steve (Samuel Anderson), to a seaside holiday resort. Think along the lines of Butlins. It is the last place AJ wants to be.
But, during the holiday, AJ meets one of the pool lifeguards, the beautiful 18-year-old Isla (Ella-Rae Smith). AJ is instantly smitten, and when Isla asks her if she wants to hang out with her and her friends, AJ agrees despite the abundance of drugs and alcohol present. She doesn’t expect it to go anywhere. She says to herself that “girls like [Isla] go for guys”, and that certainly seems to be the case. But the more she interacts with Isla, the more AJ is made to confront her own feelings and insecurities.
“Sweetheart” may occasionally dabble with predictable story beats, but its character work is very nuanced. Where every other story would have AJ’s family shun her for her sexuality, Tina and Lucy both already support AJ’s coming out. She is never once outed or treated differently for being gay. Not by her family, and in a pleasantly surprising twist, not even by the wider community. Where there is conflict is in AJ’s approach to life. Tina especially has a very old-fashioned way of looking at life and femininity – a look that AJ heartily rejects with her boyish haircut, worries of climate change, and desire to not go back to school after the holiday. Even though AJ has already come out, she is still developing emotionally and sexually, and this serves as a direct clash to Tina’s desire to treat the holiday as something normal, even though it comes directly after her divorce. It is the equivalent of hiding from emotions, or at least not directly facing them, something AJ has made a habit out of.
Morrison has crafted a very impressive first feature in “Sweetheart”. It’s empathetic, sensitive, and nuanced in all the right places.
It is in the exploration of how messy emotions and questions of self can be where the film shines brightest. Morrison’s direction and script both understand the intricacies of the adolescent mind, particularly one on the verge of becoming an adult and yet still aren’t really sure who they are. The film’s colour palette I thought supported this very well, with its vivid brightness appearing patronising at first, matching AJ’s view of the place being childish, yet becoming more homely and welcoming in tone the more AJ interacts with Isla and starts to figure things out. Although the story does sometimes venture into familiar territory – such as the traditional third act conflict – the film understands that a person’s journey of self-discovery is a winding road, not a straight one. Morrison seems happy to let her characters be themselves, and this lends both weight to the themes and good-humor to its moments of comedy, including a particularly great moment where AJ completely eviscerates a flat earther.
What we have is a comprehensive look at not only the strains of growing up and the loss of innocence, but what I believe is a celebration of co-existence and the journey of life, however complicated it can get. It is not only AJ who is on the verge of change, but so too is Lucy with her pregnancy and Tina with her divorce and although the trio regularly clash viciously, the film maintains the optimistic belief that everything will be alright in the end, and that openness is the cure to all anxieties. It shows a great self-awareness and quiet wisdom within Morrison’s writing and the performances all keep us engaged to the character work, with Barlow’s natural range completely masking the fact that this is her first role. Di Martino, Hartley, and Smith’s work also packs great punches, while Anderson’s role as the boyfriend trying to play peacekeeper is so benign that one wishes he could be a part of their lives too.
Morrison has crafted a very impressive first feature in “Sweetheart”. It’s empathetic, sensitive, and nuanced in all the right places. It may sometimes rely on familiar story beats as a crutch, and the choice to have voice over narration throughout the story is one I was a bit unsure of, but it’s a fair trade off for the compelling character drama and heart-warming themes that Morrison shares with her audience. I predict a bright future for her filmmaking career.