The Sweet East (2023, dir. Sean Price Williams)

by | Mar 26, 2024

Certificate: 18

Running Time: 104 mins

UK Distributor: Utopia Distribution

UK Release Date: 29 March 2024


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WHO’S IN THE SWEET EAST?

Talia Ryder, Earl Cave, Simon Rex, Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, Jacob Elordi, Rish Shah, Gibby Haynes, Andy Milonakis, Nichole Byron, Jordan Nessinger, Peter Vack, Betsey Brown

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Sean Price Williams (director, cinematographer), Nick Pinkerton (writer), Craig Butta, Alex Coco and Alex Ross Perry (producers), Paul Grimstad (composer), Stephen Gurewitz (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young teen (Ryder) goes on a bizarre odyssey after separating from her school trip…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE SWEET EAST?

A friend of mine who saw The Sweet East at last year’s BFI London Film Festival had an extremely apt alternative title for it: “Alice in MAGA-land”. There is honestly no better way to describe the directorial debut of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, for not only is it a bizarre odyssey through various subcultures of modern American society – some of them proudly flaunting the backwards ideologies that the MAGA movement tends to draw out – but also, much like in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it’s a journey where logic and reason seldom matter. It’s all about the experience of the young and impressionable main protagonist, who wanders from one strange encounter to another without ever questioning the utterly weird stuff happening right in front of her eyes.

If you, too, go into The Sweet East with a similar mindset of experiencing everything head-on without thinking too much about the nonsense surrounding it, then you might just find yourself along for the absolutely crazy ride. I know for sure that I was, and I found myself rather intrigued by how Williams and screenwriter Nick Pinkerton have collectively crafted a profoundly eccentric vision of modern-day America that is unashamedly unconventional.

The film follows Lillian (Talia Ryder), a high-school student from South Carolina who accompanies her class on a field trip to Washington D.C., but very quickly gets separated from them – during an armed incident that reeks of parallels to the infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory – as she’s thrust onto an episodic journey across the East Coast. Such episodes involve, but aren’t necessarily limited to: a group of directionless artists/activists fronted by Caleb (Earl Cave), who serves as the White Rabbit to Lillian’s Alice as he takes her down the allegorical rabbit hole; a somewhat unsettling relationship with far-right academic Lawrence (Simon Rex); being scouted on the streets of New York by filmmakers Molly (Ayo Edebiri) and Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris) for their new film; becoming a tabloid sensation for her involvement with the film’s lead actor Ian (Jacob Elordi); and essentially being held captive by crew member Mo (Rish Shah) in a remote religious commune with assault rifles and gay porno magazines among their artillery.

There’s so much else about The Sweet East that I’m either forgetting to mention, or there just simply isn’t enough room in this review to elaborate on the truly bizarre places that it goes. It’s all very strange, and more than a little insane, but the film is remarkably consistent in its entertainment value, with Williams and Pinkerton never losing the momentum even when it goes to some places that defy written explanation.

Williams (also the film’s cinematographer) shoots on grainy 16mm film that gives off the vibe of a 70s exploitation movie, complete with bouncy shenanigans music via a score provided by Paul Grimstad, as well as a rather violent shootout sequence where heads are blown up, arrows are fired through people’s necks, and tomahawks cause blood to gush out of people’s chests like waterfalls. All the while, the filmmaker inserts surreal dream-like imagery in between the grindhouse aesthetic, such as grotesque puppet creatures snorting cocaine with their long noses at a film crew party, and a riverside picnic where characters are dressed and even act a little bit like characters out of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. It’s enough to make the likes of Terry Gilliam and Sam Peckinpah seem Puritan by comparison, and yet Williams still paves a smooth path for his audience to tread down, alongside Talia Ryder’s Lillian as she just as mindlessly wanders into all these strange predicaments and encounters her own White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum et cetera.

Meanwhile, Pinkerton’s script lays on thick the social commentary about the absolute absurdity of American society in this day and age, with heavy dialogue that ranges from delightfully subtle to staggeringly blatant, and a narrative focus that’s as scattershot as anything in Lewis Carroll’s works. It often aims for uncomfortable laughter, and most of the time it achieves that result, because the writer and director duo spend a good chunk of time laying bare the hypocrisies on both sides of the political spectrum, often with sharp wit in their written and visual prowess that earned a lot of uneasy chuckles at my screening. Imagery such as bedcovers covered with swastikas in an old-fashioned American house, and concepts like the activists seeking to disrupt the system but still come from wealthy families, all help to create a chaotic idea of what Pinkerton and Williams believe America to be right now, and maybe even always has been, with a droll execution that once again keeps you occupied, even when at times the film loses sight of what exactly it’s trying to say.

On the screen, it’s all held together by actor Talia Ryder, who transforms her often passive and somewhat naïve character into a quick-witted and even mysterious figure. For no real reason other than to perhaps offset her boredom (she is, after all, a teen who’d at first rather be on her phone than engage with the world around her), Lillian regularly changes certain facts about herself, including at one point her own name, whenever she meets new people, and transforms herself into whoever they want her to be, whether it’s the wide-eyed innocent for Simon Rex’s borderline predatory Lawrence or the self-assured movie star that she rapidly becomes. She always remains an enigma, even in scenes where she frequently uses offensive language to describe neurodiverse or gay people, which in and of itself suggests a sheltered experience in her conservative home state of South Carolina, and Ryder’s confident and charismatic performance never lets the character slip into pure passiveness. In a sly move, Williams also has the character seem vaguely aware that she’s in a movie, with brief looks toward the camera and even performing a musical number through a mirror over the opening titles, drawing the viewer further in before this character goes on this bonkers journey.

For all of its out-there plotting and surreal concepts, I had a good time with The Sweet East, a movie that had been sold to me as “Alice in MAGA-land” (thanks, Mathew), and somehow went beyond those wild expectations.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Sweet East is an unapologetically bizarre odyssey through modern-day America that is made consistently entertaining by director Sean Price Williams’ 70s exploitation movie aesthetic, a witty if scattershot script by Nick Pinkerton, and a charismatic lead turn by Talia Ryder that keeps her character an intriguing mystery throughout.

Four of of five stars

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