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BFI Flare: Sweetheart Review

Fresh from the festival circuit is writer and director Marley Morrison’s feature debut Sweetheart, a hugely nostalgic coming-of-age tale with a fantastic British cast. Evoking childhood British holidays to resorts like Butlins and Haven, this is certainly a relatable trip down memory lane, adding a new angle to a well trodden genre.

Awkward 17-year-old AJ (Nell Barlow) is dragged along to what seems to be a boring family holiday to a British seaside resort by her overbearing mum Tina (Jo Hartley). With her annoying little sister (Tabitha Byron) to babysit, and her ‘perfect’ heavily pregnant sister (Sophia Di Martino) and her brother-in-law for company, along with no Wi-Fi, this will certainly be one of the worst holidays ever. But a thrilling encounter with fun-loving resident lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith) might change everything, with a chance to fall in love for the first time.

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Sweetheart is a quirky coming-of-age tale for the younger generation, featuring a fascinating examination of gender identity and a relatable family dynamic. The holiday camp setting will definitely be a hugely nostalgic pull for certain viewers, I can certainly relate to being an angsty teen not wanting to go holiday to a boring campsite with cheesy themed entertainment nights and awful British weather! There’s also the addition of the Summer holiday romance between two young teenagers with a twist. Morrison thankfully adds a new angle to the coming-of-age tale, exploring how AJ is navigating her gender identity and sexuality as a young lesbian, along with how her family are adapting to her changes. While they outwardly appear to accept her changes, there’s certainly little glimpses into the dynamic which tells you otherwise, such as her mum repacking her suitcase with ‘girlier’ clothes, and her sister trimming her hair. AJ doesn’t really have the freedom to express her true self, and is still overcome the challenge of finding her place in the world which doesn’t always accept her.

The film features a great balance of family drama and humour thanks to the brilliant dynamic of the British cast. Considering this is Nell Barlow’s first leading role, she does a fantastic job carrying the drama and weighty themes with great humour. AJ’s voiceovers are particularly witty and sharp, with an added insight to the angsty teen. There’s certainly a similar oddball energy and vibe to the character as Otis in TV show Sex Education or Cassie in Skins. AJ’s dynamic with her mum Tina is clearly strained, and it’s clear to see she hasn’t really accepted her life choice and androgynous appearance, leading to her daughter’s anger. Hartley, certainly playing a different type of mum to that in Eddie the Eagle, brings a lot of depth to Tina, highlighting a common reaction from parents. There’s a real relatable quality to the tension between the family dynamic on a holiday, particularly in a cramped caravan, but Samuel Anderson’s optimistic nice guy Steve is a particular highlight as he tries to keep the peace and actually treats AJ with respect.

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It’s also fantastic to see a lesbian drama break free from the usual period trappings, with the modern setting feeling much more like an accessible film for young, queer women. Set in Dorset, the film is surprisingly sun-soaked for the British seaside, with an almost hazy colour palette of pinks and yellows.

Verdict

Sweetheart is a hugely charming and fresh take on the well-trodden narrative, featuring a fantastically witty lead performance from Nell Barlow.