THE STORY – A picaresque journey through the cities and woods of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S undertaken by Lillian, a high school senior from South Carolina. She gets her first glimpse of the wider world on a class trip to Washington, D.C.
THE CAST – Talia Ryder, Simon Rex, Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, Earl Cave, Jacob Elordi & Rish Shah
THE TEAM – Sean Price Williams (Director) & Nick Pinkerton (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 142 Minutes
A need to leave it all behind and reinvent oneself is at the core of Sean Price Williams’ directorial debut “The Sweet East,” but it’s only just the beginning. He and screenwriter Nick Pinkerton take audiences through a silly, fantastical, and colorful odyssey of contemporary American life with a teenager discovering differing ideologies, bizarre characters, and enough absurdities to make everyone question what’s real and not.
Even if it’s Williams’ first time directing a smattering of great actors in this film, he does it like a pro already and shows he’s not afraid to take big strides with his projects. It might not always pay off, as there are certainly highs and lows with “The Sweet East,” but it’s an original idea that certainly deserves kudos in a world of not-so-many original thoughts. Also serving as the film’s cinematographer, his usual visual spectacle is on display that perfectly balances the changing landscape our heroine finds herself in.
The film opens on a miserable field trip in Washington, D.C., for high schooler Lillian (Talia Ryder), who is immediately identified as a different breed from the rest of her classmates. While they party it up on school buses and run around the hotel, she’s glued to her phone and occasionally gives them glances that would eviscerate anyone’s confidence. Her boyfriend also seems like an equally annoying guy who doesn’t actually care that he has a girlfriend. It’s clear she’s looking for a way out, and one is granted at an arcade bar when a shooter storms in with a gun. Lillian meets Caleb (Earl Cave), who helps her escape and puts her on the start of her adventure.
Divided into four parts, Pinkerton’s screenplay takes Lillian and viewers on a wild ride through the cities, ideologies, and personalities of the Eastern seaboard. With Caleb, a man who hasn’t left his emo phase since the 2000s, Lillian finds herself among a gathering of progressives. These wannabe hippies are made up of trust fund babies and those running away from a stable and financially secure life, but we don’t get much time to learn much else about them. During a barely thought-out demonstration, Lillian slips away and stumbles upon a white supremacist gathering where she meets university professor Lawrence (Simon Rex).
This is where a bulk of the excitement and entertainment of the film comes into play. After Lillian makes up a story about how she escaped an abusive relationship (one she heard from one of the progressives), Lawrence decides to take her in, buy her clothing and practically bend at her every demand. He, in return, projects his fantasies onto her, a recurring theme throughout the film. Rex, as a talkative, anti-liberal Neo-Nazi, is certainly not one many would expect on this year’s bingo card, but he totally sells the role and brings his classic humor along with it. Their relationship has hints of his previous film, “Red Rocket,” where Lawrence clearly lusts after Lillian, but that line is never fully crossed.
After she ditches him, Lillian stumbles into director Molly (Ayo Edebiri) and producer Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris), who are looking for the lead in Molly’s film about colonial America. These two are bonkers highlights as they play overly enthusiastic filmmakers who are obsessed with everything Lillian gives them. Jacob Elordi, who plays her costar in the film, also seems to easily swoon over Lillian as she gets sucked into the tabloids and questions arise over their relationship. Ryder, having to keep up with these various encounters and the changes they bring, completely rolls with the punches and shows she’s game for anything.
But with each of these acts, our heroine never feels like a fully formed person. Yes, she does get to immerse herself in a new world each time and take on a new personality, but who Lillian is at her core and why she wants to leave it all behind isn’t addressed. It certainly has to be more than just a crappy field trip with raunchy high schoolers, but Pinkerton doesn’t give us much else to go off of. In general, while full of great moments, Pinkerton’s script seems to lack much depth in the end. It gets repetitive and loses its steam, particularly by the end when Lillian escapes her movie persona again and follows PA Mohammed (Rish Shah).
Even with some lows, “The Sweet East” is a promising directorial debut from Williams and shows a desire to bring engaging and new stories to the big screen. Ryder, who previously delivered a powerful performance in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” continues to show her range and capabilities as a leading lady, while other supporting characters bring much-needed dedication to their absurd characters to make this a wild and unforgettable journey worth taking.