Meet AJ, 17, concealed behind a hat, sunglasses and clothes so baggy that she makes Billie Eilish look like Nicole Sherzinger, as she shrugs and grunts her way through the opening scenes of Sweetheart, a cute lesbian coming-of-age tale from the pen and director’s chair of Marley Morrison.
I don’t blame AJ one bit for channelling Harry Enfield’s Kevin the Teenager; it’s been a long, long time since I was 17 but I can still appreciate why the prospect of spending a week in a prefabricated metal box with your mum, pregnant older sister, pregnant older sister’s fiancé and her younger sister was not necessarily received with unconstrained joy.
Meet girl, kiss girl…
But, whaddayaknow, everything changes when AJ meets beautiful lifeguard Isla and leads us down the path of standard teen romcom fare: meet girl, kiss girl, run away, get drunk, piss off your mother, find each other again and so on.
So far, so textbook, and yet there is much to set Sweetheart apart from your run-of-the-mill romantic comedies. It’s refreshing to see a story of young lesbian love where the protagonists’ sexuality is not really an issue: no homophobic parents, no existential guilt, no fear of coming out. AJ and Isla HAPPEN to be young women but this is the story of a holiday romance, family relationships and the joys and struggles of young love.
Both Nell Barlow as the unsure-of-herself AJ and Ella-Rae Smith as the free-spirited Isla are instantly believable, delivering accomplished performances which thankfully stay on the right side of corny and clichéd – not so easy in the romcom genre where so many films follow a similar and predictable narrative arc.
A special round of applause must go to the brilliant Jo Hartley as Tina, AJ’s mum. Hartley is one of those actors that pops up all the time on the telly both in leading and supporting roles and when I see her name on a cast list, I know we’re in safe hands. Her turn as AJ’s mother was spot on and will resonate with any parent who has had to navigate their offsprings’ teenage years with daily exasperation tempered by patience and love.
There are those who won’t bother to watch an LGBTQ-themed film because they don’t believe it speaks to them and that’s a shame: for sure, Sweetheart isn’t going to change anyone’s life but this warm, impeccably delivered and quintessentially British story is a welcome addition to the romcom canon and well worth a watch.
Sweetheart is released in UK and Irish cinemas on 24th September.
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Read Rob Harkavy’s review of trans drams The Garden Left Behind.