Arriving somewhat under the radar, Marley Morrison’s enchanting comedy makes something convincingly British of a form that the American indie cadre has exploited to near exhaustion. You have insufficient fingers to tabulate the number of awkward teenagers who have moped their way through the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Oakland to angular rock music.
The believably troubled AJ (Nell Barlow) is griping in a very different landscape. The crap-holiday movie is almost a British genre in itself. Every now and then, Sweetheart – set in a windy resort of the old school – uncovers a few reminders of last year’s excellent caravan-park horror Make Up. The problems here are, however, at a considerably lower temperature. Among Morrison’s most notable achievements is her ability to convey the wretchedness of later teenage years while keeping the stakes relatively low.
AJ does not have such a terrible life. Tina (the excellent Jo Hartley, one of the UK's more underrated actors), her recently single mother, hasn't found the right language to use about the sixth-former's lesbianism. Why can't she dress like a girl? "Like whatshername. That lesbian actress who's in that film where they all get stuck in a room." Jodie Foster? "She's a lesbian and you'd never be able to tell just by looking at her."
Her white-bread sister, pregnant by a long-suffering firefighter boyfriend, is even less understanding of AJ’s downbeat look and sullen attitude. “A lot of gay people are depressed,” she says, unhelpfully seeking to explain why AJ scowls so much. Yet, as the film progresses, it becomes clear the tensions are all on the surface. Rammed together in a cramped chalet, the family allow superficial differences to escalate into pocket catastrophes. None of AJ’s relatives is in the least distressed about her gayness. They are just clumsy in how they address the issue.
Indeed, the only person twisted up about the topic is AJ herself. She is defiant when arguing with her mum, but desperately uncertain when tempted to act upon her desires. That is a universal contradiction of the teenage condition.
This is a startling, moving, yet unshowy, performance from Nell Barlow. The easier part involves the snappy delivery of a voice-over packed with excellent one-liners. An independently minded teenager gets plenty of opportunities to whinge in the sort of resort that hosts fancy-dress nights. "I've not seen Sleeping Beauty, but I'm pretty sure how it ends," she says sourly, when her sister suggests naming the baby after that story's princess. Barlow carries those quips off well, but it is her ability to express the huge – sometimes inexplicable – sadness at her character's centre that marks this as a potential breakthrough performance.
Those undercurrents surge up when she encounters an apparently confident lifeguard named Isla (Ella-Rae Smith). “She smells of chlorine,” she says in starkly poetic mode. Drink is taken. Parties are had. Challenges are laid down. “In her world the sun wasn’t just a giant killing machine,” AJ expands.
It is typical of the admirable balance in Sweetheart that a first sexual experience is neither an earth-shattering revelation nor a moment of awful trauma. It’s just not quite right. Some viewers may worry, perhaps, that the threats here are a little too low-level – there are no villains in Sweetheart – but, though desperately touching at times, this remains a class of romantic comedy. Resolution is never entirely out of reach.
Morrison makes use of the bland coastal vistas to create a convincingly enclosed container against which AJ can bash her brains. British indie rock tracks by the likes of Porridge Radio and Cigarettes After Sex complement the action. There is not a bad performance.
One of the year’s best feature debuts.
Released on October 8th