The Sweet East: a risky, uncompromising road movie

A high school student falls in with strange and sinister characters as she drifts through America’s East Coast in a surreal picaresque from Sean Price Williams that revels in ideological chaos.

28 March 2024

By Catherine Wheatley

Talia Ryder as Lillian in The Sweet East (2023)
Sight and Sound

In a 1985 article for the New York Times, the American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson comments on a perceived lack of “political seriousness” in the work of many American artists, a failure that stems from both an ignorance of history and the disparagement of modern America. 

At first glance The Sweet East, the directorial debut of cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Her Smell, 2018; Good Time, 2017) seems to bear Robinson out. The film follows the picaresque adventures of a high-school senior named Lillian (a blank-faced, gamine Talia Ryder) along the eastern seaboard of the US, starting in Washington DC, where a crowd of lairy high-schoolers flirt their way through a tour of the Capitol and a George Washington impersonator sporting wraparound sunglasses butchers the Shaker song ‘Simple Gifts’. Over the course of her surreal journey Lillian – who sports a reproduction Led Zeppelin T-shirt and retro plastic chokers – will encounter an Antifa “artivist” (Earl Cave) whose video installations aim to render “the experience of browsing as performance”; an Islamic sect leader (Mazin Akar) who dabbles in EDM, and a pair of Black cineastes (Jeremy O. Harris and Ayo Edebiri) making a Merchant Ivory-inspired period drama about the building of the Erie Canal.

The Sweet East is as critical – if not more so – of the American romanticist tradition that Robinson herself works in, here embodied by Lawrence (Simon Rex), a professor of 18th-century literature and covert white supremacist. Rex is best known as the lead in Sean Baker’s sleazy black comedy Red Rocket (2021); here he plays brilliantly against type as a chaste intellectual who takes Lillian under his wing, dressing her in his deceased mother’s clothes and lecturing her about both America’s “degraded culture” (which includes To Kill a Mockingbird) and the “condescending European intelligentsia” who look down on it. Lawrence quotes Edgar Allan Poe, watches only silent movies and doesn’t like anything “too contemporary”. At first, we fear he might be a Bluebeard figure, or a Humbert Humbert. Lillian doesn’t stick around long enough for us to find out, blithely abandoning Simon once he’s exhausted his usefulness. 

Jeremy O. Harris and Ayo Edebiri as Matthew and Molly in The Sweet East (2023)

If we’re left feeling oddly sorry for a neo-Nazi, that’s typical of the film’s deliberate ideological chaos. The Sweet East is a self-consciously messy film. In literal terms, the mise en scène swims with stuff, from the artists’ commune littered with bongs and dumpster food and discarded body piercings, through Lawrence’s time-capsule cottage, piled in leather-bound first editions and mothball-smelling eiderdowns (hand-embroidered with swastikas), to the suburban bungalow in South Carolina, draped in Stars and Stripes flags, where Lillian grew up. More figuratively, there are so many viewpoints and counterpoints circulating here that it’s impossible to tell what, if anything, the film has to say about the topics that it touches on, including religious extremism, spectacular violence and contemporary race relations.

There’s something weirdly regressive, too, in the film’s celebration of the medium’s own history. It heaves with nods to the canon. There are visual references to Renoir, Godard, Truffaut and Eustache (of whom screenwriter Nick Pinkerton is writing a critical biography); to Griffith, Chaplin and Lynch. Silent-era title cards punctuate the narrative. The washed-out, grainy image (shot on 16mm) lends the image a 1970s documentary look, the synth-y score a late-1980s feel. More than once I was reminded of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), not least when a monstrous puppet DJ looms from the dark- ness of a heaving nightclub, hoovering up cocaine with its Gonzo-like proboscis. 

Are Pinkerton and Price Williams politically serious filmmakers? Do they offer anything more substantial than a snide satire of modern society? The pair have themselves described the work as a rejection of cynicism about America, driven by the urge to present a “democratic rabble” of voices. It certainly succeeds in the latter regard, but the film’s final moments, which feature a bleak act of mediatised violence and a promise of worse to come, seem to undercut any sense of optimism. 

Still, if you put aside its politics and submit to the sheer scale of the thing – to Williams’s delicate, drifting camerawork and light-filled images, Pinkerton’s wry teasing of his more po-faced peers – The Sweet East reveals itself as an undeniably exhilarating ride, surreal and satirical, and not quite of this world. With the possible exception of Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974), I can think of no other film like it. It is a risky, uncompromising artwork, which acknowledges the complexity of America’s political and philosophical traditions and the muddle that they leave us in while refusing to take sides. In this much, if nothing else, it takes its subject matter very seriously indeed.

 ► The Sweet East is in UK cinemas from 29 March. 

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