A feel-good film that also feels refreshingly honest, writer/director Marley Morrison's Sweetheart arrives on home video with arthouse distrib Film Movement after picking up two British Independent Film Awards (Breakthrough Performance for lead Nell Barlow and Breakthrough Producer for Michelle Antoniades) last year and practically guaranteeing that we'll be hearing from Morrison for years to come.
Morrison, herself nominated for both Breakthrough Screenwriter and the Douglas Hickox Award for Debut Director in the BIFAs, takes a tried and true rom-com formula and makes it feel fresh and lively in telling the story of AJ (Barlow), an awkward 17-year-old stuck on holiday with her well-meaning but not quite understanding family who seems resigned to misery until she discovers Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a decidedly different sort of girl who's quickness with a friendly smile surely can't mean what AJ hopes that it means.
While the framework here is familiar, Morrison infuses Sweetheart with an abundance of meaningful details making this familiar territory an absolute delight. These characters are almost uniformly endearing and it's actually quite the joy that despite plenty of family foibles this is a family that really tries hard to love one another.
The truth is that I was only a few minutes into Sweetheart when I found myself completely adoring AJ, her recently divorced mum Tina (the always underrated Jo Hartley), her eight-year-old sister Dayna (Tabitha Byron), pregnant older sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino), and Lucy's ridiculously kind boyfriend Steve (Samuel Anderson). Tina adores her daughter in a distinctly British way, though she refuses to cater the impulsivities of her moody 17-year-old. This entire ensemble is strong, believable as a family with all its quirks, frustrations, failures, and, yeah, love.
Emily Almond Barr's lensing for Sweetheart washes over us and beautifully captures this life-changing British seaside locale. Much like this family, the seaside is both slightly comfortable and slightly distressed with an understated beauty that could pretty much sum up this entire film. Barr's work here is so memorable that I couldn't help but rush over to IMDB to check out the relative newcomer's other credits.
Music by Toydrum accompanies the occasional indie Brit rock tracks by the likes of Cigarettes After Sex and Porridge Radio. It all fits rather sublimely and furthers the already engaging atmosphere of Sweetheart.
Much like everything in the film, the relationship between AJ and Isla never feels quite right may or may not be headed toward domestic bliss but are likely changing each other's lives however it all turns out. It's simple yet honest and this wonderful breakthrough for Morrison rarely, if ever, hits a false note. Even AJ's largely sardonic narration for the film, and I tend to abhor narration, somehow works despite feeling like a misfit puzzle piece.
Ella-Rae Smith is a vibrant light as Isla, believably flirtatious and connected to AJ yet also giving up hints of her own uncertainties. Both Sophia Di Martino and Samuel Anderson similarly shine.
Then, of course, it all comes back to the award-winning breakthrough from Nell Barlow. Morrison gives us multiple layers of AJ and it's exhilarating to watch Barlow breathe life into each and every one of them. With her major film debut, Barlow announces herself as a talent to watch and should have nearly everyone with a camera knocking on her door.
Released this past week to digital and VOD, Sweetheart is an indie gem with an ensemble cast that is flawless throughout. With heart, humor, honesty, and more than a little teenage angst, this Film Movement release is a sweetheart of a film.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic