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The Sweet East

Directed by Sean Price Williams
Produced by Alex Ross Perry, Alex Coco, and Craig Butta
Written by Nick Pinkerton
With: Talia Ryder, Earl Cave, Simon Rex, Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, Jacob Elordi, Rish Shah, Gibby Haynes, and Andy Milonakis
Cinematography: Sean Price Williams
Editing: Stephen Gurewitz
Music: Paul Grimstad
Runtime: 104 min
Release Date: 01 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1
Color: Color

The directorial debut of cinematographer Sean Price Williams is a rambling road picture that journeys through an America that went off the rails a long time ago. The 1980s had Albert Brooks' Lost in America; the 2020s have several films that could be called Lost in Lost America, of which The Sweet East is a good example. Talia Ryder (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) stars as Lillian, a high school senior on a field trip to Washington, DC. Bored and alienated from her friends and teachers, she uses the excuse of being present during a Pizzagate-style incident with a Q-anon gunman to detach from her classmates and starts exploring the country by hooking up with whatever random group or individual crosses her path. These range from clueless young leftwing activists to a middle-aged white supremacist university professor (Simon Rex) to Islamic terrorists in training. The script is by film critic Nick Pinkerton, so it's perhaps not surprising that the most humorous chapter in this episodic journey has Lillian winding up the star of a pretentious indie movie made by two hyper-verbal young filmmakers (Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris) who are in love with their ideas despite not having any ideas.

The film takes a while to get going. Ryder does little at first to make her sullen and passive protagonist interesting. Lillian doesn't start to captivate us until she hooks up with the chronically frustrated right-winger played by Rex (it's great to see him popping up here and there after his stellar lead turn in Sean Baker's Red Rocket). But the slow attachment we develop for Lillian over her series of adventures is all by design. We gradually begin to identify with this disaffected observer, who listens to the verbose individuals she comes into contact with but retains little of what they say since what they say is only meaningful to them. Do we relate to Lillian because she is the only character on screen who isn't an embarrassment? Or is her reserved, mildly curious, mildly amused detachment so appropriate to each situation that we can't help but relate? It may be the latter because none of these characters come across as broad or satirical; this is only a black comedy because of how well it captures the banality of modern Americans' commitment to our prescribed political identities.

Known primarily for his collaborations with Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth, Her Smell), the Safdie Brothers (Heaven Knows What, Good Time), and Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime, Tesla), Williams has a distinctive close-up, hand-held, super-16mm shooting style well suited to the micro-budget pictures he works on. He brings that same aesthetic when shooting for himself. The rough, punchy, often ugly look of the movie is an ideal representation of its view of contemporary America. What Williams trains his camera on is usually not pretty to look at and often feels distinctly small and pathetic. The once vast and powerful country now feels like a bunch of sad little collectives that seem detached from any kind of reality. It's a bleak film but honest in its own caustic way.

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Talia Ryder plays a disaffected teen who travels through the US, witnessing the country through the lens of Sean Price Williams and the pen of Nick Pinkerton. What she sees makes the once vast and powerful nation seem small and pathetic.