Inside Out Review: 'Sweetheart' Makes Teen Angst and First Love Feel Fresh Directed by Marley Morrison

Starring Nell Barlow, Ella-Rae Smith, Jo Hartley, Sophia Di Martino
Inside Out Review: 'Sweetheart' Makes Teen Angst and First Love Feel Fresh Directed by Marley Morrison
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"Sometimes I have no idea who I am." No other sentence encapsulates the teenage experience quite like that one. In Sweetheart, April (a.k.a.. AJ, played by Nell Barlow) is trying to figure out just that: who she is.

It's a difficult thing to do, especially when everything from where we live to our name to what we wear is chosen for us. As children, our identity is shaped by other people, and when you reach an age where you can gain a bit of agency for yourself – deciding what to wear, what people call you, your sexual identity – those who shaped you still expect the rules to apply, and still expect you to fit in the box they spent years building around you.

AJ is uncomfortable enough in her own skin without her mother and older sister telling her what she is. They comment constantly about her hair, her clothes, and her paleness, and — as an out lesbian — they question why AJ doesn't look "normal" like Jodie Foster. The family never understands that it's their lack of acceptance that makes AJ feel she must wear layers, even on a hot day at the beach. During a time in our lives where we should be able to explore who we are, many are not given that freedom. In a delightful feature debut, Marley Morrison peels back AJ's layers one by one, exploring her anxieties in a film about first love and the complicated bonds of family.

AJ says that "Joan of Arc was locked up for wearing the wrong clothes," and she feels like she's in prison. Her darkly comedic and brooding internal monologue narrates the film, and her angst is especially potent when we can hear her thoughts. The film opens at the beginning of what's supposed to be a lovely family vacation with her mom, her little sister, and her pregnant older sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) and her boyfriend (who's the most understanding one of the bunch), but it's the last place AJ wants to be. The English seaside holiday park, captured beautifully by cinematographers Emily Almond Barr and Matthew Wicks, was once the best place in the world. But everything turns into hell when you're a teenager. Her mother, Tina (Jo Hartley), tells her to be grateful that she gets to have this time with her family and go on holiday, but it's not a real holiday to AJ because her dad wasn't invited. Her mom calls her ungrateful and selfish, but dealing with a potential divorce when you're a teenager is complicated. And when he won't pick up the phone when she calls, she's all alone.

Then she meets Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a lifeguard who works at the park. She's instantly drawn to her confidence, but says, "Girls like her like boys." Many people make assumptions about AJ and she can't help but do the same to others. She's pessimistic and afraid of her own vulnerability, but when she finally catches Isla's attention, a smile reveals itself for the first time and AJ does a victory dance. Isla provides AJ with the escape she desperately needs. Vacations aren't just an escape from life, but they can be an escape from yourself too. You can play a role, and become someone you're not. But in the end, Isla teaches AJ that she doesn't need to be someone else in order to be liked. While the film is sold as a love story, this fleeting romance is really only a small part of it.

A big part of Sweetheart is the exploration of the relationship between AJ and her mother. It's messy, complicated, and gets explosive in a really affecting bit of drama. All AJ desperately needs is to be understood, and while the film is about AJ becoming more comfortable within herself, it's also about Tina learning to become more understanding and simply listen. You can feel the warmth from Tina and Lucy under the surface, but it's all about finding the right way to express your thoughts with sensitivity. While the topics the film discusses are all familiar, the cast, their dynamics and their performances make for an incredibly enjoyable watch. While their backstory could have been explored a bit more, especially in regards to the situation between Tina and AJ's father, they manage to pull you in as though you're sitting around the table with them.

Nell Barlow is astounding in her first feature film role. She perfectly captures the teenage experience and all its complexities through her performance that has both a hard edge and fragility. Sweetheart has a lot of heart, and writer-director Morrison proves to be a vibrant new indie voice with a confident and established style that manages to make this familiar story feel fresh and new.

Inside Out festival runs online from May 27 to June 6. (Peccadillo Pictures)