The Sweet East: A Wild Ride Through A Disoriented America

The uncompromising comedy follows the adventures of Lilian, a teenager who runs away from home to explore the darkest parts of the United States.

Selected for the Director’s Fortnight at the last Cannes Film Festival and awarded the Prix du Jury at the Deauville Film Festival, The Sweet East, a pearl of American independent cinema, is the first solo film by Sean Price Williams, the go-to cinematographer for Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) and Joshua and Ben Safdie (Good Time).

Written by Williams’ close friend Nick Pinkerton, a renowned film critic, the film is a chaotic journey through a disorientated America, filmed as a contemporary version of Alice in Wonderland. It follows in the footsteps of the mumblecore movement, a style of cinema where characters talk a lot to make viewers forget they don’t have much of a budget.

In South Carolina, Lilian (played by Talia Ryder), a young teenager bored at school, suffers needlessly for a boyfriend who thinks only of cheating on her. Running away from her everyday life becomes her sole obsession. On a school trip to Washington, D.C., Lilian almost gets caught up in a bar shoot-out, after a gunman breaks in, suspecting the owner of hiding children in the basement.

Taken to safety by a punk artist and part-time left-wing activist, Lilian, like Alice, goes through the looking glass and experiences a world of eccentric characters in the form of a hallucinatory trip. In the course of her journey, she navigates between neo-punks, a gang of bourgeois activists, dreamy film-makers, white supremacists of the worst kind and an Islamic religious camp. But Lilian’s the one who leads the dance, and even if her partners are twisted and symptomatic of the evil of our times, it’s she who’s in charge.

Influenced by Larry Clark, Greg Araki and early Gus Van Sant, the film is a road trip through all that is dirty about America, a wild tale of disorientated youth who aspire to change the world. It’s an X-ray portrait of the American dream, revealing the whole spectrum of the country’s sickness, a radicalized body inhabited by fundamental fears of the unknown and of otherness.

The Sweat East is a feast for the eyes. Filmed in documentary style, the grainy film gives the impression of penetrating deep into a world apart. Shot with a hand-held camera, the shots follow one another at a frenetic pace, giving the impression of total proximity to the setting. Scenes are separated by intertitles taken from silent films, using a line of dialogue from each chapter that evokes the tales of the Brothers Grimm.

This cross-community journey has a scathing black humor thanks to the grace of the excellent Talia Ryder (Master, West Side Story), who hypnotizes the camera with her blue-grey eyes. She is at once fragile and predatory, intelligently playing every emotion while moving from one world to another. Starring alongside her is Simon Rex (Red Rocket), who plays a Nazi literature teacher nostalgic for the Victorian era. You only have to see him slumped in an armchair, his head in his hands, unable to handle the slightest sensual tension that comes his way, to understand his skill as an actor. The film also boasts a fine array of young talent: Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, Earl Cave, and the star of Euphoria and Priscilla, Jacob Elordi, who is given a funny cameo with an abrupt trajectory.

We can only recommend this singular tale, an uncomfortable and dark but never despairing experience.

The Sweet East is in cinemas in France from Wednesday 13 March, 2024. 

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