The Sweet East Review: To What End?

Spoilers Ahead.

Francis Rogerson ‘26 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Crafting a frenzied cinematic rebuke to the all-too-common complaint of Gen-Z social media mavens – “nothing happens in this movie” – director Sean Price Williams and writer Nick Pinkerton deftly, and with only a delicate pinch of the archly clever winking edge lord bent one might expect when met with a plot synopsis or trailer for this film, implore the audience to come along on a journey in which, as the closing title card suggests, “everything will happen.” But what The Sweet East propels us toward – as well as the giddily picaresque American muck we are made to swim through along the way, beginning with a literal wink to the camera – makes for a curious odyssey, occasionally compelling yet just as rotely self-satisfied as its intellectual and aesthetic calling cards might suggest.

This is not to say that this film is solely addressed to the generation represented at its center, but it is a film certainly interested in Generation Z’s impulses and perspectives and in some ways running on its malaise. The conditions of the protagonist, apathetic South Carolina high school student Lilian (Talia Ryder), are reflective of such cultural and political attitudes, but Lilian, perceptive as she is, is also a blank canvas of sorts for other characters young and old to project themselves and their more sweeping, verbose ideas and agendas onto. The character is half-realized, a charming degenerate whose intuitive wit helps her float gently through the various chapters of surreal Americana she finds herself in while never quite conveying a concrete personality. Her lack of motivation, however, is a less egregious sin, as it is basically the narrative and political engine of the story. Typically in stories like this one (think last year’s Beau is Afraid or the perennial example, Alice in Wonderland) the protagonist does lack specific attributes, accruing bits and pieces of a personal history along the road to a distinct destination, all the while armed with a specific motivation. Williams’ and Pinkerton’s experiment here is to craft a similarly dizzying story with a protagonist in pursuit of… nothing in particular, for no reason at all. This is perhaps meant to be cleverly evocative of some kind of youthful nihilism, and Ryder lends Lilian a coy sense of control and probing savvy to all, which rests wisely underneath that disaffected teenage sheen, but it becomes hard to consider such characteristics compelling when they are in service of something as bewilderingly baiting as this.

The film begins with, you guessed it, a gun-toting 4Chan truther (Andy Milanokis) storming into a D.C pizza parlor where Lilian and her high-school field trip-mates are having dinner, demanding to see the pedophile sex ring he violently insists is sitting right under their feet. A quick shot of a lonely tricycle lingering in front of an ominous cave entrance confirms this, and a throwaway line shortly after as some are seen entering the abyss – “It seemed so much bigger when I was a kid” – establishes a clear comedic tone of provocative insincerity, nebulous enough to leave us wondering it’s actually funny or just cheaply thrilling. Lilian escapes the chaos relatively unscathed but loses her cell phone. This is a nice touch on Pinkerton’s part, as this leaves her utterly detached from the outside world and renders the rest of her journey almost reminiscent of a romp through a youthful, sharp-edged cyberspace; a lack of agency within the bounds of modern society allows others to pounce at every turn, but she’s more wily than she appears. Lilian is swiftly whisked away by teenage punk-rocker-type Caleb (Earl Cave), with a silent film title card to boot: “Fancy a ride to Charm City?”, the first of many that recur to mark Lilian’s various exploits throughout the film. Caleb takes her to his apartment where he lives along with other so-called “artivists,” aspiring revolutionaries dedicated to making experimental video art meant to imitate the experience of being on the internet, and in the morning, gunning down a Neo-Nazi rally. Lilian gets bored and wisely books it when the group loses their way, and she happens to end up at the rally herself, where the big-bearded, gun-toting, biker-leather-sporting Nazis all munch on pickles and chat.

It’s here she meets Lawrence (Simon Rex), a smartly dressed academic whose erudite posturing masks a much needier, smarmy quality, not to mention he is also, you know, a Nazi. He considers himself better than the people he surrounds himself with, though he of course spouts slurs and stereotypes just as comfortably and often as they do, with a kind of wryly funny nonchalance. This is likely because he cannot wear his ideology as proudly as they can for the risk of losing his cushy job as a university professor. But his inflated self-importance is also bolstered by his eclectic hobbies: he’s a lepidopterist, a silent-film enthusiast, and a scholar of Edgar Allen Poe, among others. As an actor, Rex is incredibly adept at playing a certain kind of dirtbag charm intrinsic to a certain generation of American men who wear their dried-up youth on their sleeve, pathetically grasping at their last scraps of social influence – exemplary of this type is his star turn in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket a few years back. Lilian weaponizes Lawrence’s well-mannered neediness to get a free meal and a place to stay, telling him she’s run away from an abusive boyfriend after he hit her, a story she cribs almost verbatim from one of Caleb’s housemates – she even steals her name, calling herself Annabell. This is just one example of the various phrases, attitudes, and attributes Lilian manages to gather throughout the film, amounting to something close to a personality, signaling a keen observation sense, and a survival instinct, lurking underneath that cooly dissociative stare. Around this point in the film, we get some clues to her personal life. She writes a letter to her best friend Tessa back in South Carolina, wishing her well and sending love to her dog Spider. Once or twice, she tunes into news broadcasts on other people’s phones to check in on the frenzy surrounding her disappearance. We get a sense of the kinds people she went to high school with. She feels in this way indicative of an online persona, attitudinizing authenticity. At the same time, she is equally evocative of the distinctly real-life sensation of floating through that post-high-school, early-twenties restlessness. She’s constantly bouncing from sphere to sphere and stylishly blending in wherever she goes, maintaining plenty of agency while diving into increasingly dangerous territory. Lawrence tells her he thinks she was born too late. “How do you know I wasn’t born too early?” She quips. “Maybe I don’t exist yet.” 

Still, it’s difficult to wrestle with Lilian’s narrative stasis and chameleonic attitude as a cogent metaphor for girlhood or whatever when Pinkerton and Williams rob Lilian’s supposed agency of depth or complication by continually reducing her to some protracted signifier of American’s masculine, wanton sexual deviancy. In every situation she ends up in, someone wants to have sex with her, or at least she can tell that if she sticks around for long enough, they will feel as if they can. In the case of Lawrence, Lilian seems tempted to coax him into making a move after noticing he has no problem forking over his credit card for a shopping spree at a lingerie store; or maybe she would know just who he was even without such effort. He gives her a meal and lets her stay in his house, so when she takes a bath or changes clothes or sleeps, he is there, standing awkwardly outside, glancing ever so slightly over the threshold he swears he won’t cross. She uses her body time and again to weaken his resolve, first for the clothes, then to convince him to take her along on a trip to New York City – presumably so she can uncover the contents and destination of the bright red duffel bag one of his skinhead chums gives over to him – then again in their hotel room, where she lounges scantily clad in the lingerie she bought on his dime, strategically tantalizing him. When he goes out the next morning, she discovers the bag is full of cash and absconds with it to who-knows-where. One could say this gives her power, but it feels more like a juvenile realization of some glib Lolita pastiche. Lilian is a cipher, but that allure and all its potential nuance is subsumed by Williams and Pinkerton laughing a little too loudly at their own jokes, cheapening desire until it evokes a mere semi-adolescent horniness. It is equally cringe-inducing, and a bit chilling, that Rex and Williams have both playfully but matter-of-factly suggested that Lawrence’s incessantly orotund vernacular closely resembles that of Pinkerton himself. 

The moment Lilian leaves the hotel, she is accosted by Molly McNair (Ayo Edebiri) and Matthew Sutter (Jeremy O. Harris) two jittering independent filmmakers who insist she star in their new film. When Lilian expresses her doubts – “I’ve never even been to Hollywood” –  Edebiri delivers one of biggest laugh lines in the film: “The best actress is just a woman who says yes.” To Molly and Matthew, everything that comes out of Lilian’s mouth is a perfect encapsulation of some mystical ingenue romanticism; “What do you even do?” Matthew marvels, “You’re so random.” Her participation in their film, a period piece about the construction of the Erie Canal, as explained in a hilariously convoluted monologue by Harris and Edebiri, inexplicably rockets her to premature movie stardom before the production has even wrapped. It’s worth mentioning how good Harris and Edebiri are together, capturing a preening, pretentious quality specific to the NYU art-house sect with deft humor and impeccable comedic timing. Jacob Elordi is equally funny in a small role as playboy movie star Ian Reynolds, matching a waggish vapidity to his gangly stature and pretty-boy charm. Without giving too much away, things on the film set go violently awry, and Lilian is once again forced to flee, this time stashed away in a secluded Vermont farmhouse by kindly crewmember Mohammed (Rish Shah). On a walk in the woods together, Mohammed tries to endear Lilian to his way of life, so she makes a jab at his drab woodsy surroundings, to which he retorts “Everything is a joke to you.” She denies this, so he spits back as if complimenting her, “Other people might see who you are clearer than you do.”

Shortly after, it is revealed that the reason she must stay hidden is that Mohammed lives with an oft-shirtless group of Muslim militiamen who dance around the campfire to homebrewed EDM, and they don’t take kindly to women. A CD emblazoned in Sharpie with “BISMILLAH BEATS” hilariously breaks the tension of a later scene in which Lilian manages to escape by pretending to be a neighbor passing through searching for a lost dog. One more stop, rescued by a friar to rest for the night in the tower of a dark cathedral after passing out in the snow. He prattles on about some miracle he witnessed long ago, to which Lilian can’t stop laughing. The scene cuts to black, and Lilian is back home. Nothing much has changed; Lilian will not talk about why or how she went missing, or where she went, only going as far as to assert that she was not kidnapped. “I’m just kinda doing my own thing,” she tells a younger family member, somewhat echoing an earlier assertion she makes to Annabell, who asks her what she is running away from: “I’m not running away from anything,” she says, and although Annabell looks dubious, we understand just how true that is. She is reunited with Tessa, who informs her that a kid they both knew committed suicide just before graduation. “Kind of stole your thunder,” she jokes. “Do you know why he did it?” Lilian asks. “I don’t think it’s one single thing when somebody does something like that.”

It would be a mistake not to mention that The Sweet East, on a technical level, is more well-constructed than a great many of its contemporaries. Sean Price Williams is one of the great American cinematographers of his generation, having shot such films as Good Time and Heaven Knows What for The Safdie Brothers, as well as all of Alex Ross Perry’s six feature films to date (Perry also produced this film). This is Williams’ directorial debut, where he also serves as director of photography. His compositions are lush and playful, and he directs his actors with delicacy and humor. The brisk editing, the work of Stephen Gurewitz, keeps the pace at a spirited jaunt. The score, by Paul Grimstad, is very good, keeping us abreast of the chaos around every corner, but never feeling overbearing or insistent. Nick Pinkerton’s script is at once ideologically dense and structurally airtight; what would register as unruly in lesser hands is instead rendered lean and suffusive. It’s a dizzying romp, contradictory in that it feels at once perfectly balanced and light on its feet while always remaining gratingly self-reflexive. 

Here is the kind of movie that, refreshingly, is earnestly provocative, artistically confident, and filmically well-crafted, all while remaining assured enough to not ask for too much from its audience in return. ​​Still, it does not entirely come together. It skirts potential signifiers of outright conservatism by lampooning them instead but does so with such a cynical bent that one wonders if they’re really in on the joke or the butt of it. This is not a failure, really; one can respect it, still, for trying, and enjoy it all the more. It just means that The Sweet East is almost self-consciously setting itself up for reclamation in the most boring way possible: it fosters an ardent fanbase that feels primed to defend it by dodging every criticism with a swift “but, like, isn’t that the point?”

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