Sweetheart finds teen lesbian love on a coastal campsite

Marley Morrison’s witty feature debut stars newcomer Nell Barlow as a moody teenager whose summer holiday is brightened by a burgeoning romance.

Nell Barlow as AJ in Sweetheart

Sweetheart is in UK cinemas from 24 September.

“Is this what we’re doing? Sunbathing?” marvels AJ (Nell Barlow) as she settles into a new friendship with Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a lifeguard at the holiday park she is visiting with her family. This interior monologue, characterised largely by AJ’s disdain for what other people find fun, is sustained throughout Sweetheart. Marley Morrison’s feature debut is a gentle comedy-drama of hi-fi feelings on a lo-fi stage – Little Miss Sunshine meets Bhaji on the Beach. “Nobody likes being pale,” AJ’s mother Tina (Jo Hartley) instructs her, as she attempts to win her teenage daughter over with the gaudy gimmicks of Freshwater, the summer destination she always used to adore. The park’s delights are captured with a combination of humour, tenderness and pity, from the caravan crammed full of two (going on three) generations of a bickering family to a stage magician with a mediocre routine and lacklustre audience.

We are introduced to AJ in the opening scene through her music, as the moody punk pop of British band Porridge Radio manifests her misery and immunises her against repetitive family chatter. Nell Barlow, in her first feature film, plays AJ’s deadpan humour and social awkwardness beautifully with an eye-rolling but lovable set of idiosyncrasies. In a wrinkled polo shirt, pink aviators and DIY haircut, AJ is as awkward as they come. “I’m seventeen… everything is wrong with me,” she explains as those around her try to lift her spirits. When she does allow herself a rare expression of joy, it is a fist-pump aimed at nobody but herself. Behind her, the slightly off-kilter row of washing machines in the Freshwater laundry room are painted candy shades of yellow, blue and pink – never is she allowed to forget that she’s on holiday and is supposed to be having fun.

This setting is a device that gets the best out of Morrison’s witty writing by getting the worst out of the ensemble of supporting characters – from the wannabe social media influencer to the teenage boy desperate for a girl, any girl, to have touched ‘it’ just once. Meanwhile, AJ’s mother Tina and Tina’s pregnant sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) routinely switch gears from talking about breast pumps and cracked nipples to choosing gammon off the dinner menu. Morrison is a great observer of social dynamics, and the cinematography allows family set pieces to unfold patiently with an unobtrusive camera. Occasionally, it experiments with more ostentatious shots – usually to express AJ’s fascination with love interest Isla – and the indie soundtrack supports these tonal shifts, from adolescent dissatisfaction to burgeoning romance and back again.

Nell Barlow as AJ and Ella-Rae Smith as Isla in Sweetheart

Contemporary lesbian films frequently sideline the coming-out narrative in a bid to normalise queerness. In Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019), Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy has been out for two years (the problem is, she still hasn’t kissed a girl). In such films, femininity seems to become a requisite for lesbian progress, confounding stereotypes but revealing enduring anxieties about female masculinity. Boldly responding to this trend, Sweetheart’s best one-liners are devoted to the battle over not AJ’s sexuality but her gender. As Tina cautions, “Just because you’re a lesbian now doesn’t mean you have to dress like a boy all the time.” Jodie Foster is cited as the contemporary lesbian figure par excellence – you wouldn’t know by looking at her.

This complex combination of judgement and concern clearly underpins AJ’s depression, as her mother obsesses over what she wears and how she styles her hair. An ability to find the comic potential in this painful material is one of Morrison’s strengths as a writer. She has a hard balance to strike, however, because AJ is both endearing and obnoxiously ungrateful; Tina is both homophobic and overburdened and doing her best, a single mother unable to live up to an absentee father. This is familiar terrain that Morrison just about pulls off with the help of performances from Hartley (This Is England, 2006) and Di Martino (Marvel’s Loki), conjuring warmth and sympathy against the odds.

But AJ’s stubborn alienation from those around her risks alienating us, too. As Mae Martin’s recent Netflix series Feel Good reveals with its stand-up comedy storyline, putting the flatness of depression at the heart of comedy creates a tonal problem: either too serious or not serious enough. Sweetheart’s wisecracking protagonist makes jokes at her own expense, her voiceover routinely interrupting moments of genuine intimacy. Similarly, the film offers up weighty subject matter but pulls back before we fully invest, always holding us at arm’s length.