Marley Morrison’s feature debut, Sweetheart, takes ahold of you with its striking charm and sharp dialogue. Coupled with strong performances, this is as entertaining as it is relatable.
The last place socially awkward 17-year-old AJ (Nell Barlow) wants to be is on holiday at the seaside with her oh-so-annoying family. Dragged along by put-upon mum Tina (Jo Hartley), AJ is determined not to have fun. When she discovers the campsite doesn’t even have Wi-Fi, it promises to be the worst week of her life. But then a chance meeting with resident lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith) changes AJ’s perspective. Perhaps being stuck there with no means of escape isn’t so bad when there is the chance she could fall in love for the first time.
Anyone who has been a “caravan holiday kid” will immediately gravitate towards Sweetheart. As one myself, dragged every weekend and every holiday (even in September and October) to my parent’s static caravan down by the coast of Northern Ireland, I can relate with everything AJ feels at the beginning of the film. No matter what generation you are from, the problem of being dragged on a holiday to a place you do not want to go to will forever relate.
While AJ is obviously smart and will not hide how smart she is when she is around others, she deems to be spewing nonsense. She is still a teenager and brings all of those doubts and insecurities that people of that age have with her. Nell Barlow is wonderful as our lead, and even when her character could be seen as just a tad too grouchy, she can reel the audience back onto her side. As her affection for Isla grows, Barlow shows us this in every possible way; she is, after all, playing a character we have seen so many times now that, in the other hands, could be seen as quite stale. Here she pulls it off with aplum, and as the film progresses, you sense that there is a lot more to come from Barlow down the line.
The same can be said for Ella-Rae Smith, who helps lift the film throughout. For every nervous protagonist, we need the bubbly, more confident (even if it is only marginally so) love interest, and Smith captures that perfectly as Isla. As this is AJ’s story, she is not as fully fleshed out as one would like, but Smith can show how Isla can break down AJ’s high walls and show her how love and affection can make you happier. Although she is the more confident of the two, that doesn’t stop her from having her own doubts about her own love-life. Working at a holiday park will leave you with continual fleeting romances. As AJ struggles to find herself, Isla struggles to open herself up more, for fear that that person will already be long gone back home when she does.
Sweetheart also manages to perfectly balance the comedy with more serious moments well. However, for as much as you want to enjoy the film, the story only has sprinklings of originality, and with the rest feeling very samey, it makes it difficult to stand out from the crowd. What does help it is the performances from its cast. Jo Hartley ably anchors us with her performance as Tina, a mother who is clearly just trying to do her best for her children and, in her own slightly misguided eyes, trying to help her socially awkward daughter come out of her shell. Of course, it falls on her face, but there are good intentions as she tries to give her family a nice holiday.
AJ’s narration works tremendously, and in fact, is possibly the strongest part of the script due to how it betrays what usually comes out of AJ’s mouth and adds a layer of extra charm to this picture. Sharp dialogue is spread thickly throughout Sweetheart, as frustrations between the family members boil over, and the nervousness of a first love comes forth for AJ. Morrison has a wonderful grasp of her characters as if they were plucked effortlessly from your own reality. We know these characters; hell, your family might have a strong semblance to them in their words and actions.
While Sweetheart doesn’t always work as smoothly as it should, this is still a very entertaining film and marks out Morrison as one to keep a firm eye on down the line. It feels as if she has written a love letter to that socially awkward teenager, dragged along with their family to a place they don’t want to go, away from the safety of their bedroom. Morrison tries to tell them and remind us who was that teenager, that no matter what, it will be okay; your family may not fully grasp you now, but they will get better, and so will you.
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