‘Sweetheart’ Review: A Seaside Crush

In this British coming-of-age film, a young lesbian stumbles through some important firsts.

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By Teo Bugbee

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AJ, the moody protagonist of the British coming-of-age film “Sweetheart,” exudes an angst that is recognizable to any person who has lived through adolescence.

When she is dragged by her mother, Tina (Jo Hartley), to a family vacation at a seaside trailer resort, AJ (Nell Barlow) initially stews in frustration. She’s not charmed by nights spent watching the resort’s resident magician. And her usual wardrobe, consisting mostly of baggy sweaters, doesn’t suit the sunny weather — much to her mother’s delight.

But if “Sweetheart” shows its share of evergreen teenage turmoil, the writer and director Marley Morrison also cannily observes details that feel specific to young people today. AJ is tortured by the lack of Wi-Fi. She signals her defiance not with a leather jacket or tattoos, but by wearing sunglasses and a bucket hat everywhere. AJ is concerned about the environment, and she’s just as likely to argue with her mother about methane emissions as she is about appropriate beachwear. Most crucial to the plot, when the film opens, AJ has already come out to her family as a lesbian, though she lacks romantic experience.

On vacation, AJ’s boredom quickly dissipates when she meets Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a local lifeguard, at the laundromat. Propelled by a desire to get to know this beautiful stranger, AJ stumbles forward through some important firsts for her life. She goes to parties, she smokes and drinks, and she begins to explore her sexuality.

Morrison is less discerning in her depiction of Isla’s character, and at times Isla feels flat in comparison with AJ’s broad collection of quirks. But to the film’s credit, the central relationship remains realistically drawn — a teenage courtship that’s marked by misunderstandings and mood swings. The characters aren’t always sweet, but they never feel phony.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. Rent or buy on most major platforms.

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