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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Sweetheart *****

Starring: Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella-Rae Smith, Sophia Di Martino, Samuel Anderson

Director: Marley Morrison

Country: UK

Nothing that anybody will ever say could possibly convince me that British caravan parks are a nice place to be. And though this isn’t the first LGBT+ film in recent years to head to the grey shores of the North Sea (Make Up, Uncle Frank), there is something refreshingly modern about Sweetheart’s melancholy reflection on “holidays” in Britain’s grim resorts.

Seventeen year-old AJ (Barlow) is reluctantly on holiday with her “normal” family. Her father left recently, so her mother (Hartley – This Is England) is trying to regroup her children again. Her sister (Di Martino – Loki, Yesterday) is pregnant and doing everything she can to avoid stress, but her husband (Anderson – The History Boys, The Lady In The Van) understands that not everything is easy for the younger sibling, who has recently come out as a lesbian. Shy, retiring and bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders, AJ is insistent that she won’t have a good time on this vacation. That is until she meets Isla (Smith – The Stranger), a free-spirited camp employee who slowly coaxes the younger girl out of her shell.

A coming-of-age story that sees AJ transform from an abrasive know-it-all to a tender and open young adult, this holiday proves to be far more significant than she could have bargained for. Barlow is magnificent as AJ, hiding behind her long fringe, bucket hat and technicolour aviators. Lashing out with stock “you don’t understand me” outbursts, she is an irritating nightmare for her entire family and if it wasn’t for her pithy and dry narration, we would struggle to like her too. But as her woke Gen Z concern for over-population and climate change overbears her ability to enjoy herself, we see the seeds of a charming person jaded by over-consumption of scientific doom theories.

Isla fizzes with youthful spontaneity and is the antithesis of AJ. Hidden behind that confident façade, we see that she is just as insecure as AJ, but the pair together are chalk and cheese that somehow find a peculiar balance in one another. The course of their romance is, of course, far from smooth and drenched in teenage angst, but watching the pair reach the same point in their lives together after starting at such disparate positions makes for superbly pleasing entertainment. And it helps that it’s laugh-out-loud funny too!

Considering how irritating the family are to begin with, director Morrison does a great job back-pedalling and making them feel eventually human. Sam Anderson is the clear stand-out here, while there are some vividly drawn characters among Isla’s co-workers too. A special mention should definitely go to Spike Fearn for his role as the painfully adolescent Elvis, who is a brilliantly performed supporting character, despite his slight screen-time.

The holiday park is bleak throughout, with the family slapping on sun crème in the cloud, an 80s night in a carpeted function room and a magic show that fails to set pulses racing. Though there is a bleak beauty to some of the shots along the pebbled seashore, this is definitely not going to work as an advert for the Great British Seaside Holiday. AJ says “It’s funny how perspectives change. When I was nine, this was the best place in the world.” As adults watching, we can see the grim bleakness of the forced fun and the pretence that the weather is better than it is. But, of course, a holiday is about the people you’re with and for AJ, it’s about this fleeting encounter with a girl that wrenches her into a different reality than the one she arrived with.

The greatest of films are those in which we follow a character on a cathartic journey and we certainly get that here. AJ’s story is compelling, moving and full of heart as she transforms from a cold, hard lump of wood into an absolute sweetheart. This is the best British film you’ll see this year.

UK Release: 24th September 2021 in cinemas, released by Peccadillo Pictures.


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