Sweetheart Review: BFI Flare 2021

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

A delightful Gen Z coming of age story, Sweetheart is a fantastic comedy packed full of awkward laughs and first love nostalgia

AJ is a seventeen year old lesbian who feels utterly out of place in her decidedly ‘unwoke’ family and is struggling with her place and future in the world following a difficult year at school. She’s thoroughly unimpressed then when her mum drags her family to a caravan holiday park at the seaside for a week with – the horror – no wifi. Whilst AJ may be determined to have the worst possible week of her life, she’s surprised to find herself falling head over heels for beautiful park lifeguard Isla and things start to look decidedly up. Sweetheart is the debut feature film from writer/director Marley Morrison and stars Nell Barlow as AJ and Ella-Rae Smith as Isla.

Whilst Morrison is not afraid to make AJ unsympathetic at times – she is a properly sullen teenager for most of the film – Sweetheart shines because AJ is an intensely likeable character. A young woman questioning her own expression of femininity, she hides behind a terrible haircut, a 90s bucket hat and orange sunglasses and bristles at the assertion from her mother and sister that she can be a lesbian and ”still look totally normal, like that Jodie Foster.” She spouts facts and figures at people rather than have to engage in conversation about herself and narrates the film with an witty internal monologue that may see doom and gloom in the world around her, but manages to frequently be laugh out loud funny throughout.

Nell Barlow and Ella-Rae Smith in Sweetheart

Filmed on a microbudget in a real British holiday park in Dorset, Sweetheart brought back my own childhood memories of being forced to sit in a manky static caravan somewhere on the coast (it was always raining) and somehow consider it a treat. Yet the park manages to take on a colourful nostalgic glow once Isla enters the picture and we see things through AJ’s smitten, orange tinted eyes. If Nell Barlow perfectly captures the awkward growing pains of a young queer person learning how to navigate the world then Ella-Rae Smith positively glows with the free spirited energy of carefree Isla. The two make a fantastic pair.

Sweetheart also features a very strong supporting cast in the shape of AJ’s family, including her frustrated mother Tina (Jo Hartley), pregnant princess sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) and Lucy’s downtrodden but lovely boyfriend Steve (Samuel Anderson.) Whilst AJ awkwardly fumbles her way around parties, alcohol and dating she causes an increasing rift with her family who are struggling to adjust their family dynamic in the face of her constant anger and apathy at the world.

L-R: Tabitha Byron, Sophia Di Martino, Jo Hartley, Nell Barlow and Samuel Anderson in Sweetheart

The film is not all played for laughs, there are some big blowout fight scenes that feel brutally honest and yet the sense that it all comes from a place of love and concern is always well conveyed. Whilst AJ at times seems to be pushing everyone away from her, decent character development means you can trust the story to come full circle and reach a satisfyingly wholesome conclusion.

Sweetheart is a joyful film with a great deal of heart that speaks to so many of our shared experiences. No matter your persuasion it is sure to remind you of the thrill of first love and the awkwardness of those teenage years whilst keeping you laughing and smiling throughout. Honest and fun, wonderfully nostalgic and sure to cheer up even the most cynical of viewers.

Sweetheart is playing as part of BFI Flare, the London LGBTIQ+ Film Festivalbetween 17th – 28th March. You can buy tickets to stream it right here. Sweetheart is released in UK cinemas on 24th September 2021

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