Summer Loving: In Conversation with Sweetheart writer-director Marley Morrison

Summer Loving: In Conversation with Sweetheart writer-director Marley Morrison

Sweetheart is transforming the typical queer coming-of-age narrative for the next generation. The earnest film sees a young lesbian dragged along on a family holiday to a British caravan park with no internet, but a sun-loving lifeguard may make it all worthwhile. Emily Maskell meets writer-director Marley Morrison to discuss the intricacies of this Gen-Z lesbian summer romance. 

Sweetheart is not a coming out film. With a gravelly Dunstable accent and self-imposed scrappy haircut, 17-year-old AJ (a breakout lead role for Nell Barlow) is awkward, endearing and already out to those around her. This alone immediately separates Morrison’s film from its queer coming-of-age genre companions, and the pedestalling of coming out to assimilate into heteronormativity.

This young lesbian, as brazen as she is bumbling, spends a slice of her summer holiday on the Dorset coastline with mum Tina (Jo Hartley), heavily pregnant older sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) and her easygoing partner Steve (Samuel Anderson), alongside younger sister Dayna (Tabitha Byron). Their cosy holiday caravan hosts some explosive family arguments, as adolescent angst comes up against parental expectations. All the while, it is the possibility of a summer romance with mystifying lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith) that coaxes AJ out of her room, the latter’s smile as brief as the British summer’s sun’s appearance: blink and you’ll miss it.

With all the familiar hallmarks of a British seaside staycation – sticky suncream, cheap beer, the wafting scent of chlorine blanketing meandering days – Morrison proudly spotlights the formative years of lesbian identity. Feeling misunderstood and experimenting with her gender presentation, AJ embodies a rare coming-of-age instance where coming out is not of interest. Instead, Morrison fosters a cathartic authenticity in showcasing the potential of a Gen Z post-coming out story. 

Girls on Tops: How did you settle on this story for your feature directorial debut?

Marley Morrison: I had been doing shorts for a while and wanted to do something that was a passion project. At the time, I was going through a lot of things with my gender identity and I’d written a film semi-based on my experiences. Then, as filmmaking goes, it’s a long process and during that time, I changed a lot personally. I grew up a lot and then decided that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I went to Cyprus and I thought the whole point of me doing this was to give something back to the younger generation. 

Growing up, I didn’t feel like I necessarily saw myself reflected on screen; there were very few lesbians and masc-appearing or gender-nonconforming people. I look back and what would’ve helped me was something uplifting and that was the change in me: I wanted to make an uplifting and joyful film. I wrote Sweetheart in a few weeks and it all felt very easy.

What was the thought behind setting this story at a remote but timeless British seaside caravan park?

It’s one of those places etched in my memories. I think if you’re working class and British you’ve probably experienced it. They are very specific places that exist in their own time and space, like the world around them changes and moves on, but holiday parks are timeless. You could see the same entertainment yesterday as you saw 10 years ago. There’s something quite nice about that, something safe and very British about it. We can have a beer and watch the magician even if they’re shit – it’s fine!

I love them as spaces and then, when I was thinking about the film, I thought it’d be great to contain it in a space like this. With holiday romances, someone’s got to go home at the end of it, so there’s always that fleetingness. It’s never a stable place.

What was your relationship as a writer-director to this character and her story?

The character of AJ has dustings of my personality as a teenager: very righteous, bored of everything and everyone, trying to find your own space and carve out your own identity when no one is like you in your circle. I wanted to root AJ in the present day with the effects of having a phone. AJ is a mixture of things: the young gay girls I see nowadays combined with a lot of my own anxieties as a teenager. 

Nell Barlow is such a star, she’s so great at navigating the awkwardness in a grounded and endearing way. 

We saw quite a few different girls, probably over a hundred. Nell was one of the first ones. She just did something a little different in her tape. I don’t know if this was a deliberate thing or not but it reminded me of the Joan of Arc film, the old black and white one. There was something of a vulnerable warrior about her performance that always stuck with me.

AJ’s mother, Tina, clearly loves her daughter but sometimes says the wrong things at the wrong time. But you never paint her as a villain.

I never wanted to make her villainous because a lot of parents get a bad rep and I think we all live literally in different worlds. Between the generations, things change so much so quickly and there can be such a difference, whether it be Tina’s age, Lucy’s age, or somebody of AJ’s age.

It was really important to make it clear [Tina is] not a villain or homophobic. It comes from a place of fear more than anything; somebody like Tina is judging AJ based on her own experience, of things that she learnt in her own time. That was what I wanted to get across, that Tina’s just somebody from a different era. She’ll say the wrong thing sometimes and we can be really sensitive and respond aggressively or try and understand where everyone’s coming from and be a bit more compassionate.

The chemistry between AJ and her love interest, Isla, is wonderful. How did you direct their intimate scenes?

Intimacy scenes have always been moments I almost let the actors work out on their own and I help a little bit. It’s tricky to get right, but for me, it’s about collaboration and chemistry. When I saw Nell and Ella-Rae do a reading together, I couldn’t stop them talking; they were just chatting, laughing and taking selfies. From the moment they met they had an instant connection and friendship, it was really natural. We didn’t have to try too hard, which is good. 

Costume designer Amy Thompson curated a really original style for AJ. How was that character-building process?

Looks for me are born out of the attitude, of how much someone is trying, or not trying, and who they want to impress. With AJ’s look, we wanted to give her this shaggy hairstyle that looks like she cut herself in an effort to find her identity. When I pictured her, it was with a bucket hat. 

I always wanted a strong silhouette for AJ so you could always distinctly know her if you saw her, even if it was in shadow. The bucket hat was the first thing that came, then our costume designer found these glasses. I just thought they were super Liam Gallagher 90’s vibe and kids these days are super inspired by the 90s, a lot of it comes back around – flares are back again!

Crucially, Sweetheart is not a coming out story. It still feels somewhat rare to meet young queer characters who are already out. When thinking about this film within the canon of queer coming-of-age stories, why was this post-coming-out story the narrative you wanted to tell?

A lot of the queer films I’d seen had been coming out films, a lot of the time that had never gone well. You might have to come out on several occasions, if you meet a new person or see a family member you haven’t seen in a while, it’s a constant process. I never wanted to make a coming out film because I thought about all the awkwardness and comedy to be found in the nuances of, “Ok, you’ve come out now, what happens next?”

There’s a great line when AJ is trying to get ready to go out and she tells herself, “I’m 17, everything’s wrong with me.” Was it at all a challenge to channel the Gen Z experience into your script?

My partner has a teenage sister, so she informed a lot of it. Gen Z is a completely different generation to me, and I’m not that old! It just shows how different it is from when you grow up most of your teenage years without a phone and social media. Younger people nowadays are constantly under that pressure.

Gen Z is so plugged into everything, they know what’s going on thousands of miles away and constantly feel like they have to do something about it and have to be seen to be doing something about it. They’re so connected to these big issues, which I think people of my generation and older weren’t; our problems were what we were dealing with in our communities. So [for Sweetheart], I took little bits of what I was seeing around me and how plugged in all these teenagers were to [issues like] the crashing of the ecosystem.

Do you think tackling narratives other than coming out or focused on queer turmoil is the desired direction of contemporary LGBTQ+ stories?

That feels like it’s part of my job, or at least I think about it being part of my job. It really does change how you see yourself when you can see people existing where their stories don’t revolve around their gayness and their storyline doesn’t just surround that part of themselves. We just exist as human beings having complex issues, so I think that’s slowly changing, and hopefully it continues. 

Sweetheart is in UK cinemas on September 24th

Em Maskell (@EmMaskell) is a film critic and culture writer from the UK. She has written for the likes of PAPER Mag, Vulture, i-D and BBC Culture covering film, television, internet culture and all things coming-of-age and/or queer related. When she's not writing, she's reading film scripts in an oversized jumper and cradling the biggest mug of tea she can find.

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