Nearly anyone can relate to feeling like an outsider. Sweetheart, fueled by a decidedly British outlook and flavor, reminded me of that awkward phase of my high school existence when I hadn’t quite figured out myself yet. AJ, or April (Nell Barlow) if you prefer, is the black sheep of her family. They constantly blame her for their problems and make snide comments about how she should dress or present herself differently. “Jodie Foster is a lesbian, and she looks totally normal,” her mom insists. Though she is essentially out of the closet, AJ is sexually inexperienced, socially awkward, and hyper-intelligent. She is environmentally conscious too—she wants nothing more than to “knit jumpers for elephants in Indonesia” and bypass a return to school.
The spark of the story happens right at the beginning, when we follow AJ and her family as they head off to a coastal holiday park. This is apparently a British, working-class tradition. It gives the narrative a bite of originality in its unique setting and examines it through a lens of honesty. AJ’s mom wants the best for her, though she doesn’t always understand her and finds her too pale. Objective number one is for her to find some friends. When a local girl, the vibrant Isla (Ella-Rae Smith) who “smells like chlorine,” invites her to a party, AJ discovers drugs, partying, and an actual social life. When AJ returns home drunk, her family is completely appalled and shocked at her behavior.
AJ pines for Isla’s connection—she yearns to realize her initially unspoken feelings. “Girls like that don’t like other girls” she insists, feeling that she is way out of Isla’s league. Her misguided family is really trying to connect with her, especially AJ’s mom (Jo Hartley). One scene where AJ tries to settle for hooking up with horny Elvis (Spike Fearn), who asks her to “just touch it” and walk away if she’s not into it, made me laugh and cringe. It is so sleazy to insist that you can help someone discover their sexuality. It made me laugh when she described him as smelling “like hot dogs.”
At the end of the day, however, it is the lesbian relationship with Isla that is handled in the sweetest way. Their will-they-or-won’t-they back and forth is downright adorable. A horrifying awkward first hookup makes you question if there is anything there in the first place. AJ’s insecurities and deadpan personality make her a truly endearing centerpiece. The decisions she makes can be frustrating, but they always ring true to her character.
Sweetheart follows a long line of LGBT coming-of-age films and manages to overcome the more predictable elements of the premise. It does two things that I really admired: the first is the decision to not make some generic coming-out fiasco; the second is the choice to avoid telling a straightforward love story. In making these two major deviations from the norm, it becomes a surprisingly engaging character study. Nell Barlow as AJ is strange and fantastic, and her fling with Isla equal parts natural and organic. Heavier elements about depression and sexual confusion rear their head sporadically. It is a tender exploration of a budding young lesbian during a formative time in her life, an excellent feature debut from writer/director Marley Morrison.
Sweetheart screened at the Inside Out Film Festival, and heads to theaters in the UK and Ireland on September 24th.