Tuesday, 23 March 2021

SWEETHEART - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

Dragged on a seaside family holiday against her will, mardy 17 year old AJ (Nell Barlow) is determined to have a terrible time until she meets Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a beautiful lifeguard at the park and the girl of her dreams. Seeing her burgeoning friendship with Isla as an opportunity to re-invent herself and spend as much time away from her family as possible, AJ parties with the young staff of the holiday park, starts to have fun and just maybe falls in love.

Much like the understated humour of last year's Days of the Bagnold Summer, coupled with AJ's dry voice-over that brings to mind Richard Ayoade's Submarine, Sweetheart, writer/director Marley Morrison's debut feature, is a well-observed teen drama with so many lovely family details that make it seem oh so relatable to anyone who's holidayed with family under protest. AJ's mother Tina (This is England's Jo Hartley, on fantastic form) is the kind of woman who point blank refuses to call her daughter anything but the name she gave her, April (in fact, the whole family do apart from her pregnant sister's supportive partner, Steve); who says "ooh, cows" when passing a field in the vain attempt to muster some enthusiasm from her teenage daughter, and who takes her washing on holiday because the machine at home has stopped working. Despite her constant battles with AJ/April, Tina never feels like the villain, and as the story progresses and we learn more about why AJ's father wasn't asked to join them, she becomes an increasingly likeable character.

But it's completely Nell Barlow's film from start to finish. Dressed like Liam Gallagher in a bucket hat and tinted shades (Sweetheart feels so much like a throwback to the 90s that it could well have been set then), her AJ is an introvert who's exploring her sexual identity - and possibly her gender identity too - almost afraid to reveal how smart she is to the kids at the caravan park, worried - a la Lisa Simpson in the Summer of 4 ft 2 - that signs of her intelligence will be a turn off. Instead it draws in the ray of summer sunshine that is Isla, a free-spirited young woman who's able to guide the sullen AJ into realising how cool they actually are and encourage her to be herself. Their scenes together have the desired flush of teen holiday romance, albeit with the backdrop of a drab, mundane English caravan park to them.

With a fun, sprightly teen pop soundtrack and a couple of knowing nods to Dirty Dancing (inevitable, really), Sweetheart is a fun holiday romance that anyone who was ever an awkward teenager will find cringingly familiar. 

Verdict

3.5/5

Sweetheart is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

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