Samuel Anderson

Sweetheart

25/09/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Writer-director Marley Morrison’s debut feature is a charming coming-of-age tale, brimful of angst and high-octane emotions.

Seventeen-year-old AJ (Nell Barlow) is being taken on holiday against her will. Sure, she used to love going to Dorset’s Freshwater Holiday Park when she was a kid, but things have changed. For one, her dad’s not with them this time, and no one’s told her why her parents have split up. For another, the entertainment’s lame, and she doesn’t like sunbathing or swimming or talking to people. Okay?

But seventeen is an annoying age, with autonomy just out of reach. For now, AJ’s mum, Tina (Jo Hartley), gets to make the rules, and AJ has no choice but to spend the week cooped up in a caravan. Her sisters are there too: the younger Dayna (Tabitha Byron) and the older – and very pregnant – Lucy (Sophia Di Martino). Lucy’s boyfriend, Steve (Samuel Anderson), is clearly used to the family dynamic. He’s truly the nicest guy on earth, smiling and sympathising with everyone, making coffee and carrying bags and providing reassuring hugs. Every holiday needs a Steve.

AJ’s at odds with the world. She’s been in trouble at school; she just doesn’t fit in. She’s cut her hair in a fit of pique; she hides away in a bucket hat and aviator shades. She doesn’t want to conform but she doesn’t know what she wants. Her mum tells her to go out into the caravan park and “make some friends;” AJ just looks at her in despair. How?

And yet, thanks to the lovely lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), that’s exactly what she does. AJ falls for Isla the minute she sees her, and the attraction seems mutual, although AJ’s convinced that “girls like Isla have boyfriends.” And it’s true, in a way: Isla’s a free spirit, and – although she’s not in a relationship – she does like having sex with boys. But that doesn’t mean she’s not interested in AJ…

Morrison really captures the raw pain of being a teenager: the self-conscious awkwardness; the self-loathing; the unfocused rage at a world that doesn’t understand, that should understand, that doesn’t hear what’s being unsaid. The family relationships are expertly drawn, the characters opening up as the as the story unfolds, so that we can see each of them clearly.

The young holiday-camp workers are believable too. At first, they seem supremely cool and confident but, as AJ gets to know them better, she soon learns that they have their own issues, their own dreams, desires and disappointments. And they seem to like AJ: she’s found a crowd where she can have fun.

I grew up in North Wales and had summer jobs in holiday parks a lot like Freshwater. Cinematographers Emily Almond Barr and Matthew Wicks have certainly captured their spirit here, and I’m particularly impressed by the nuanced way the clubhouse is depicted, at once horribly kitsch and embarrassing (from AJ’s point of view) and full of sparkle and promise and respite from the world (as seen by Tina and Dayna).

This is an age-old tale, and there aren’t many surprises, but it’s been lovingly updated and is never less than compelling.

4 stars

Susan Singfield