THE SWEET EAST. Anarchists, Nazis, and Celebrities – All of America [REVIEW]
Director Sean Price Williams and screenwriter Nick Pinkerton don’t play with subtlety. From the first sounds, they reveal what their film will be like: The Sweet East begins with the roar of an engine, smoothly transitioning into a recording of children reciting a patriotic oath. It only becomes more predatory and even more American from there – the creators suck in the myths and woes of contemporary America and grind them into a hilariously absurd pulp, resulting in cinema that is both unrestrained and shockingly absurd.
The starting point is quite typical: Lillian (the fantastic Talia Ryder, known from the film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”) is about to finish high school, so, following a common tradition, she goes on a class trip to Washington. There, she finds herself in a situation that is less typical but still quite common in America: a nutjob with a gun attacks a bar because he believes the owners are involved in a pedophilic scandal. Lillian manages to escape the potential crime scene with the help of a local anarchist. When the girl enters another exciting world, she loses herself in it completely – and so do we.
On Lillian’s journey, there are dingy basements, abandoned wooden houses, suspicious motels, and vast forests, but the colorful characters take center stage. Lawrence, a literature scholar of Edgar Allan Poe, stands out, with his two great passions: butterflies and Nazism (he even decorates his quilt with swastikas). Simon Rex moves in a similar register to his recent role in “Red Rocket” – creating a character of an energetic chatterbox disturbingly fascinated by a young girl – but takes the eccentricity to the next level. Besides him, other emerging stars of American indie cinema make appearances, including the always funny Ayo Edebiri (“The Bear”) and the well-performing British cinema star Jacob Elordi (“Euphoria”).
The fragmented narrative of The Sweet East touches on everything associated with America’s creators. It includes celebrities and Nazis, dreams of escaping the mundane for the world of fame, and shatters sweet notions with bloody violence. However, it’s challenging to consider this film a serious social commentary. Instead of delivering boomer judgments, Williams tries to keep up with his young protagonist. The acclaimed cinematographer (known for films by the Safdie brothers and Alex Ross Perry) embarks on an entertaining odyssey into the depths of American hell, not necessarily dwelling on his country’s problems but rather reveling in the teenage naivety. He speeds through the twists and turns, joyfully delving into secluded corners and blind alleys. If he pauses for a moment, it’s to savor a breath of freedom and the beauty of peculiar details, wonderfully presented in grainy shots. Taking the cinema-as-feverish-action formula from the Safdie brothers, Williams pushes it to extremes where there’s no possibility of hitting the brakes – you have to keep going as if there were no tomorrow.
If you’re exploring the East Coast of America, it has to be under the guidance of Sean Price Williams. To fully savor The Sweet East, a certain level of naivety is required. Once you dull the initial reflexes of rational criticism and immerse yourself in the hallucinogenic atmosphere of the film, you won’t want to return from this journey. And when you do, you’ll immediately want to embark on the next one. Is The Sweet East simply an obscurely comical reverse of Alice in Wonderland? Perhaps, but above all, it expresses a belief in the meaning of travel as an indispensable activity in human life. By showing Lillian’s electrifying journeys, Williams stimulates our desire to bravely venture into the unknown and at the same time proves that sometimes the wildest expeditions can be experienced without leaving the cinema seat.