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Sweetheart (2021)

The British seaside movie is normally a house of horrors. There are vampires (“Byzantium”), human trafficking (“London to Brighton”), exploitation (“Brighton Rock” in all its guises), drug deals gone awry (“Away”), kidnapping and torture (“The Scouting Book for Boys”), and violence in all its forms (“Quadrophenia” being the granddaddy of them all). “Sweetheart” triumphantly breaks the mold by being about exactly none of these things. It is such a relief to see a movie set on the English coast where the worst thing that happens is a fancy-dress night in the pub.

Not that 17-year-old A.J. (Nell Barlow) appreciates any of this. Her mother Tina (Jo Hartley) has dragged her along for a week in caravan park on the Dorset coast, as the family’s last hurrah before her much older sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) has her baby. The party is completed by Lucy’s sweet partner Steve (Samuel Anderson) and little sister Dayna (Tabitha Byron). They have all been here before and like it quite a bit – there’s a pool, there are beaches nearby and every night the pub has events of one kind or another. It’s a very normal working-class vacation setting; picture a motel on the Jersey Shore or in Ocean City with enough in-house amenities that there is no need to go exploring.

A.J., short for April Jane, could care less though. She is a walking scowl, slumping around after everyone, wearing mostly black and a truly terrible haircut. The voiceover narration is of A.J.’s thoughts, which of course are self-centered teenage melodrama. Ms. Barlow’s awkward underplaying of the feverish extremes of A.J.’s thoughts is extremely hilarious. But it’s understandable that Tina has had it. She and Lucy are very feminine, who take great care in how they present themselves, so A.J. looking such a mess is a deliberate insult on top of everything else. “Just because you’re a lesbian now doesn’t mean you have to dress as a boy,” Tina says. A squabbling family dynamic where the lesbianism is not remotely the issue is pleasing to see.

And of course a resort must have workers, who are all slightly older than A.J. In the laundrette she meets lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), all confidence and nose piercing, who cheerfully invites AJ to a crew party where she meets everyone, most importantly Nathan (Steffan Cennydd) and Elvis (Spike Fearn). They all welcome A.J. with open arms, pepper her with questions, offer her whippits and vodka if she wants, but there’s no pressure and no threat. A.J. drinks too much, from nerves, and vomits all over the caravan when she gets home. The next day Steve cleans her up and later sees her and Isla together, and adds two and two. “Girls like her like boys,” A.J. grumbles. But pretty soon she learns a little maths of her own.

If you have seen “Sugar Rush,” a beloved British TV show from 2005-’06 about two girls in love, you pretty much have the idea. But “Sweetheart” unfortunately also makes the same mistake that “Sugar Rush” did, which is having the mixed-race half of the couple be the catalyst for the white girl’s growth. This would be a little more forgivable if Steve, noticeably the kindest member of the family towards A.J., wasn’t the only other character of color. But this is the film’s only flaw. Writer-director Marley Morrison has sculpted a sweetly hilarious story about a young woman learning other people are just as smart as she is, even if they aren’t vegetarians and don’t want to knit sweaters for elephants. The stakes are realistic, and everyday, but that doesn’t mean they’re low. At one point A.J. badly hurts Lucy’s feelings by sneering at a potential baby name, and later A.J. leaves Dayna alone – but not unsupervised – in the swimming pool. The potential for catastrophe is as real as anything a motorcycle gang could do, which A.J. doesn’t quite appreciate. But Isla and Spike are a little wiser, and under their friendly chivvying A.J. starts to wise up. The fact that Spike calls A.J. Luton, the town she’s from, speaks to the emotional intelligence of the script, which manages to make its teenage cringe laugh-out-loud funny.

And for a movie about a teenage girl, “Sweetheart” is also more than usually kind to her mother. Ms. Hartley is excellent as a woman who has worked hard to provide this week for her family, who despite her own tough time completely understands why A.J. is being such a pill, but will not be held hostage to teenage sulkiness. The friction comes from their natures, and not even Dayna is fool enough to take their unconditional love for granted, but A.J. aside they have a sense of humor about it. For example, when Lucy demands Steve come dance with her, he mutters “Off to the wars,” as he cheerfully gets up.

In other words, “Sweetheart” is a terrific movie that punches well above its weight by respecting the story it’s telling down to the pedicured toenails. The location cinematography by Emily Almond Barr and Matt Wicks is cheerful and practical, without any contempt for the working-class setting – relatively unusual in British cinema – and Keelan Gumbley’s editing keeps us close to A.J. and her thoughts but allows us to see things clearly. Finally, the score by Toydrum, and music supervisor Jenn Egan’s choices, from the disco cheese in the pub to the indie rock A.J. favors, builds a mood of resigned hopefulness. The chance A.J. has with Isla might change everything forever, if she’s smart enough to take it. Whether one young woman can manage not to sabotage her own happiness is high stakes enough.


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