A summer getaway to a holiday park, in the vein of Haven or Butlins, is an informal rite of passage for any British adolescent. The cheesy presenters and characters in dress-up, the noisy arcades, the awkward glances at fellow teens who feel equally unsure who they are and why they’re there: these concepts are all captured brilliantly in Sweetheart, the deeply relatable debut from writer-director Marley Morrison.
The film follows AJ (Nell Barlow, terrific in her film debut), a teen at the peak of puberty who feels every inch of angst, confusion and frustration. She struggles most inherently with who she is-her gender, her sexuality, her place in the world-and has nothing in common with her mother and older sister, who encompass the tropes of conservative adult figures who simply don’t consider the nuances of AJ’s identity. Their trip to a seaside holiday park, coming in the aftermath of a split between AJ’s parents, provides the grounds for these hidden pressures to bubble to the surface – a matter which is complicated by the arrival of Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a lifeguard at the park who changes AJ’s view on love and relationships.
Most strikingly, the film is an exploration of the tribulations of late-stage puberty; an ode to the perpetual awkwardness and insecurity of the latter teenage years. Barlow’s performance captures this with such candour, conveying the unavoidable nerves of speaking to a crush or the inevitable feeling of being ready to fly the nest, and it’s bolstered by a script that mostly understands the ebbs and flows of teenage life. For every clunky line of dialogue-a problem only really seen when AJ drunkenly parties with the park’s employees-is an exchange that immortalises the ageless clash between teens and parents, with confrontations that are so frank, dripping with venom that has boiled up over years of unsaid feelings.
It also presents a nuanced look at teenage crushes, where real life can be messy, and often disappointing. Without going into the specifics of AJ and Isla’s courtship, Morrison certainly gets across the idea that the inherent thorniness of these formative years means relationships aren’t always destined to work, and that the concept of a neat, fairytale romance is often far from reality. The writing really shines here, capturing feelings and characters that are so real and human, and crafting sentimental moments that range from uplifting and hopeful to genuinely heart-wrenching.
More than anything, though, Sweetheart is a film that’s hugely inward-looking: considering who we are, what we want in life, and the tumultuous journey one must go on to even begin to formulate an answer to these questions. In the end there’s a sense of liberation, but you still feel like AJ is only at the beginning of her journey – the quest to truly discover oneself is an interminable one, but a path worth treading nonetheless. By the time she gets in the car to go back home, Sweetheart has shown the confusion and pain that comes packaged with the teenage experience; a portrayal so human that you’ll undoubtedly see a glimmer of yourself in it.