Written and Directed by Marley Morrison.
Starring Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella-Rae Smith, Sophia Di Martino, Tabitha Byron and Samuel Anderson.
A sulky teen finds romance while on holiday with her family at a coastal caravan park.
In the production notes of her striking 2020 debut feature Make Up, writer/director Claire Oakley describes a caravan park as harbouring the capacity “to be both dream and nightmare, with only a flimsy plastic wall as the line between the two”. Her summation, pertaining to an eerie, horror-tinged tale of teenage sexual awakening at a holiday resort, might just as aptly be applied to Sweetheart: British filmmaker Marley Morrison’s warm, vibrant and at times painfully honest seaside coming-of-ager about an adolescent with a few identity issues of her own.
That’s because in the eyes of 17-year-old AJ (remarkable newcomer Nell Barlow) the idea of holidaying by the coast with her family is seemingly akin to booking an Airbnb on Elm Street. As she openly proclaims early on, the only thing she really wants to be doing is knitting jumpers for elephants in Indonesia. Everything else for this cynical, environmentally aware teenager – perennially clad in a bucket hat and, rather ironically, a pair of rose-tinted glasses – seems rather pointless, not least spending time with her mother (Jo Hartley), younger sibling (Tabitha Byron), pregnant older sister (Sophia Di Martino) and her partner Steve (Samuel Anderson).
Things begin to change, however, when she meets Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a free-spirited park employee who insists that AJ has a good time. As their relationship blossoms, AJ becomes increasingly infatuated as her pessimistic world view – interior monologues that zing to the tune of “why is life so f**king predictable” – slowly starts to soften, opening the door for some renewed perspective and a vital helping of self-examination.
All this is hardly novel ground, though. The idea of the caravan as metaphor, the suffocating, static structure juxtaposed with the vast wilderness of a surrounding body of water, has been explored in cinema throughout the decades. From Make Up to the Dardenne brothers’ Palme d’Or-winning 1999 drama Rosetta, holiday parks have proved surprisingly fertile ground for introspection.
And so, from its premise alone, much of Sweetheart might at first seem tied a little too closely to convention. But Morrison’s film, which won the audience award at the Glasgow film Festival and was named best first feature at the Inside Out festival in Toronto, unfurls with welcome jolts of subversion, wit and candour at every turn. In avoiding many familiar queer narrative beats, Sweetheart is a story far more concerned about its people than it is its predicaments.
Equally refreshing is Morrison’s approach to setting, neatly capturing both the tackiness and appeal of an establishment it would be all too easy to be snobby about. But for every uncharismatic magician or underwhelming fancy dress disco there is a poignant reminder of the sense of community that entices thousands of families to caravan parks across the world every year. And with needle drops aplenty – Porridge Radio and Cigarettes After Sex – Morrison weaves a shrewd tapestry of youthful exuberance and angst, stitched together with enough sentimentality to produce something that is charming, truthful and touching.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_GeorgeNash for more movie musings.