Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Sweet East (2023) dir. Sean Price Williams

East coast unleashed


Life moves pretty fast, and that speed doesn’t hit you until you realize the world has different rules and lingo and that trying to catch up is futile. That might help describe the experience of The Sweet East‘s Lillian, a high school senior played by Talia Ryder, who undergoes a bonkers odyssey on the East Coast. It might also describe the feeling of watching this movie, which ain’t so bad if you’re looking for a comical confrontation of the new normal.

I should specify that Lillian’s journey is presented with the opportunity of learning that the boundaries of the human mind are limitless and that ideas are constantly mutating under the American sun, but it’s not to say that Lillian particularly holds to these experiences with academic eagerness. The film begins with her on a school field trip to the White House, where she seems somewhat annoyed at her ex flaunting his new relationship (“This was your idea,” he says after Lillian snaps at his girlfriend, alluding that she broke up with him). The school group attends a pizza parlor, which is held up by a gunman (a fun appearance by Andy Milonakis) accusing the owner of kidnapping children in an imaginary basement (a fun appearance by a peculiar conspiracy). Lillian escapes the restaurant with radical self-described “artivist” Caleb (Earl Cave) — but not before singing an entire original song as the opening credits play, thus beginning the adventure that she wouldn’t have learned had she stayed with her school group.

In some of these solitary one-person adventures, like Eyes Wide Shut or Under the Silver Lake, the main character can be overwhelmed by the insanity of their surroundings, which can mute their personalities. Lillian tends to her experiences with an overall impassive attitude and a slight materialistic desire to go shopping or stay at a nice hotel in Manhattan. Part of the movie is the expected teenage girl experience to not think too critically about things that exist outside of high school, but it also fits the bill of a contemporary satire of this generation. As it turns out, Lillian’s nonchalance in this story is more fun to watch over Kerouac romantics. Ryder, who is 21, effortlessly plays teenagers like the back of her hand (see Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Do Revenge), and the particularity of playing Lillian as a blasé character with a seeming carelessness for consequence yet still absorbs the world around her paints a depth to the cool-girl-apathy against the niche strokes of the East coast culture.

The people Lillian encounters consider her youth and indifference as a doormat to impress their ramblings and opinion upon. She is also listening to them, even if she looks like she’d rather be doing something else. Featured players include Lawrence, the secret Neo-Nazi professor (played by Simon Rex, who performs wonderfully as a mansplainer with wounded eyes — words that feel foreign together); Molly and Matthew, the chatty filmmakers (Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris); and Mohammed, the shy, religious cult member (Rish Shah). Lillian will often fib by using stories and tidbits that are shared by past characters (for example, she tells Caleb that she’s a college student at Howard because a tour guide mentions it earlier in the movie), and the lies play like answers to a Sphinxian riddle in order to move forward in the storyline. The veracity of the stories doesn’t matter because each character is consumed with their own near-parodic thought-trains, and Lillian represents nothing more than confirmation. In the most amusing sense, Lillian doesn’t really “grow” in an arc — we are often reminded of her lack of adaptation when she drops the word “retarded” in every city or leaves people high and dry in various situations. Still, the fun lies in the surrealistic satire of the coastal elites, which works for me because it’s the kind of audacious film that we need every once in a while.

I have no doubt that some will find issue in The Sweet East‘s lack of direction or irrelevance (one particular gunfight feels like a lazy scene-ender, but what’s American satire without excessive guns?). When you fall into the film’s rabbit hole, you shouldn’t expect a five-star hotel room waiting at the other side. Williams’ choice in the 16mm grainy depiction of the illogical travel creates both a hallucinatory dream and the feeling of watching lost footage of a road trip using a handheld camera. Lawrence’s Lanthimos-rhythmic tangents and the New York excitable babble become separate dialectic circles that accurately reflect the modern walks of life classified by politics and geography. Don’t feel pressured to keep at the same pace as the film on your first watch. The Sweet East can be like a cold shower — something that invokes initial resistance, until you find that this is more soothing for your well-being.

The Sweet East
dir. Sean Price Williams
104 min.

Screening through 2/19 @ Brattle Theatre

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