It should come as no surprise that the cinematographer behind the Safdies' 'Good Time', Sean Price Williams, has approached his directorial debut with the same textured and intimate camerawork that will surely start making him a household name - if not already. 'The Sweet East' made its debut at Cannes and may yet go down as 2023's best portrayal of the contemporary United States.
On a school trip to Washington DC, Lilian (Talia Ryder, 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always') seems listless or disenfranchised with her current state of affairs. She has a partner, some friends, and a confidence that doesn't express itself in exasperated or extroverted tendencies, but in a reserved and nuanced manner. Despite all that, and despite her seemingly wanting to be a part of the joy, an armed hold up at a karaoke bar presents Lilian with an opportunity to escape, as she runs away in search of more. Thus begins Lilian's picturesque journey, a tale of the U.S. through the lens of a teenage girl, and her chance encounters with the groups and communities on the eastern seaboard.
'The Sweet East' does a great job in underlying the fact that all the crazed cliques, freaks and unwanted visitors all have one in thing in common - they call the U.S. home. Their relationship with the USA of today is certainly fractured, perhaps even warped, but it is still home, and much like Lilian herself, Williams depicts the U.S. not as a hero or even an antihero, but as a nuanced and complicated bedrock of opportunity.
"The streets are paved with cheese," recalled a once idealistic mouse from Russia, and isn't that what makes the United States? Williams might have his own ideas on what the USA is, but perhaps what is most affirming is that there is no single answer. This film raises a hand to the pulse of the nation and checks that although broken, it is certainly still breathing.
Or at least, that can be determined through the grainy and sometimes fantastical views of Lilian. No matter the type of character she encounters, she is always game and interested to see how this one can propel her onto the next. It culminates in a bewildering and often darkly funny road trip film that is as engaging as it is confronting.
Each marker on the journey is mapped by a chapter title, each in turn introducing a new character for Lilian to play with. We meet punk anarchists, white supremacists, filmmakers, abbots and Islamic EDM DJs who live in the woods. There might be a name for this collective, but it hasn't come up. These quirky collectives of characters all try to convince Lilian of their way of life, trying to seduce her to subscribe to their way of thinking. It is not always immediately obvious, although mostly is to her, but Lilian's chameleon-like demeanour draws them in so that it almost becomes their own idea to keep her around. It's too difficult to say she uses them as they often use each other, but they all look to benefit in one way or another.
This film raises a hand to the pulse of the nation and checks that although broken, it is certainly still breathing.
As these colourful characters shape the structure of the film, it's imperative that they are memorable and commanding, and credit to Williams for getting fantastic performances from these side roles. Most notably is Simon Rex ('Red Rocket') who plays Lawrence, an academic professor with questionable world views. This film may yet be remembered for the "no sex scene" - and I don't want to get into spoiler territory, but just to say it was such a daring choice that I really think excelled the character and film. There are predatory instincts from both characters, but this decision invites such a nuanced lens to even the most seemingly hateful.
There are also great performances from Australia's Jacob Elordi ('The Kissing Booth') and Ayo Edebiri from TV's 'The Bear'. While less complex than Rex's character, they equally hold a significant place in Lilian's journey and bring great characters to the screen.
'The Sweet East' will no doubt draw some comparisons with 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always', not just for Ryder's performance and presence, but as the next indie darling shining a light onto the contemporary U.S. and what it means for a young girl. While not as seminal or lingering, this film still has something to say and rightly embraces the indie tag for an altogether funny and complex journey of the people that shape the United States.