Impulsive, young, naïve — it’s common to speak of America in such terms. Even with almost 250 years under its belt, the country can’t compete with the centuries-long histories of other empires. Descriptions focus on flaws, unrealized visions and the broken promises of the oft-cited American Dream. Sean Price Williams is keenly aware of America’s reputation, and uses his beautiful but tedious directorial debut The Sweet East to find pride in it. Both satire and patriotic statement, the picaresque adventure of Lillian (Never Rarely Sometimes Always star Talia Ryder) paints a sardonic but ultimately uninteresting portrait of America and its cultish factions.
Like most protagonists of stories like this one, Lillian is listless and a bit unmoored. The film opens with an audio of the Pledge of Allegiance before cutting to a scene of post-coital bliss between Lillian and Troy (Jack Irv). Her character is one of few words. When she does speak, she mostly expresses disgust and describes everything as “retarded.” Lillian’s reserved nature positions her as the perfect observer, which proves to be a double-edged sword during her adventures along the northeastern coast of America.
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Written by Nick Pinkerton, The Sweet East begins in earnest during Lillian’s high school trip to Washington. D.C. The internal drama of the students, who are from South Carolina, plays out efficiently in these early scenes. Lillian and Troy fight about a vaguely referenced agreement and our protagonist largely avoids her peers.
Later, while the classmates are hanging in an arcade bar, Lillian wanders away and locks herself in the bathroom. She sings a tune — written by film composer Paul Grimstad and performed by Ryder — and then chaos ensues. A shooter enters the store looking for the manager and referencing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. As the manager negotiates with the disgruntled shooter, Lillian meets Caleb (Earl Cave), another patron, who helps her escape through a secret door behind the bathroom mirror.
The Sweet East moves energetically, which, initially, adds to its allure. Williams works in the same cool and intimate style here as he does in his other projects, which include cinematography for the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, Owen Kline’s Funny Pages and music videos for Brockhampton and A$AP Rocky. There’s a beauty to the grittiness of The Sweet East and to the way that Williams renders the familiar: The American landscape — whether it’s the washed stone monuments of Washington D.C., the great green densities of New Jersey or the gray sidewalks of New York — is a dreamy vision.
Lillian stays with Caleb, who lives with other progressives, for one evening before she wanders away from them. They represent the kind of leftists composed of generationally wealthy kids, ditching trust funds for half-baked politics and demonstrations. During a misguided plot at a national park, Lillian stumbles upon a white supremacist gathering. There, she befriends Lawrence (Simon Rex), a university professor who feels stifled and suffocated by the liberal agenda overtaking campuses. He, just like everyone she has met before and will meet after, projects his fantasies onto Lillian. She uses that to her advantage, which the film tries to push as a form of agency.
It’s hard to buy. Lawrence houses Lillian for weeks, buys her clothes and later takes her on a trip to New York, where she eventually ditches him too. Throughout their time together, we don’t really get a sense of her character beyond her reactions to his perceptions of her. In New York, Lillian lands a role in a movie, which, the film jokes, turns her into the ultimate vessel for projection.
The New York scenes revel in the absurdity of artistic life, the relationship between directors and producers, auteurs and their performers. While running away from Lawrence, Lillian meets Molly (Ayo Edebiri) and Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris), a director and producer, who are casting for Molly’s film on colonial America. She stars alongside Ian (Jacob Elordi), a vain national heartthrob, and develops a crush on him, although that doesn’t go anywhere.
The Sweet East struggles to move beyond the surface of some of its more interesting ideas, and its portraits feel shallow as a result. Lillian’s sense of the world expands; the viewer’s, less so. The film swerves between mocking and sentimental, a tonal approach that plays as more confusing than clarifying. There’s an effort to both caricature and humanize these broadly sketched groups, but the only character who, ironically, ends up feeling like a real person is Lawrence, whose conspiratorial pontifications get the most serious screen time.
During a post-film Q&A, Williams admitted that calling oneself a patriot wasn’t popular these days. But far more interesting than claiming love of country is using that love toward a meaningful end. “I love America more than any other country in the world,” James Baldwin wrote in 1955, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Baldwin’s complicated love for America fueled his work, which offered a range of observations: scathing critiques, humorous reflections and humanizing solutions. The Sweet East provides easy jabs and the occasional laugh, but never seems to figure out what it wants to say.
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