‘The Sweet East’ Review

A real odyssey of the mind

No doubt film folk will liken cinematographer-turned director/screenwriter Sean Price Williams’ feature debut The Sweet East to an Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass sort of thing (the latter is weirder than Wonderland, but then, so is this movie). And they’ll be right to a certain point, but it’s a bit more like The Odyssey in form.

Herein, high school-aged Lilian (Talia Ryder, Dumb Money) seemingly unwittingly finds herself thrust into the strange pockets of humanity that lurk beneath the crumbling veneer of modern America while on a class trip to Washington, DC. After that, while traipsing around who-knows-where, she runs across any number of bizarre fringe folk who exist in the liminal spaces between polite society.

The cast of come-and-go characters and factions—from a faux-poor punk poseur and a white supremacist academic to a pair of jargon-loving filmmakers and some sort of men’s cult in the farmland—each represents something stranger than the last. But Ryder’s take on Lilian presents a person who learns from her surroundings and uses those lessons to catapult herself along through sheer cleverness, making each encounter valuable in its own way.

Lilian is a bit of a cypher, and we can never be sure if she’s actively choosing to lie and finagle her way through her journey, or if she can’t help being some sort of empty vessel who mimics thoughts and feelings. Ryder both charms and terrifies as the sometimes dead-eyed teen. She disappears completely into Lilian and subtly showcases the intricacies of her particular existence. Does she owe men who help her a goddamn thing? Is she just bored? Why is she so willing to simply go along with whatever situation next presents itself?

Like Lilian herself, those things remain a mystery throughout the film, but it’s still depressingly relatable, particularly when she hits flashes of exasperation or sadness or even nothingness. And it all begs a question: How the hell do we exist in relation to others and why do we pretend humankind isn’t just a bazillion weirdos playing at house and war and art and activism and education?

Williams has thus far been known as a consistent collaborator of the Safdie filmmaker brothers (Uncuh Jaaaaaamz), but it’s cool to see him strike out on his own with something so unignorable. The Sweet East reads like a nauseating travel diary punctuated by strong personalities, yet every time we lose the thread, Ryder’s Lilian keeps it grounded and enticing.

Throw in short appearances from Ayo Edebiri (The Bear), Jacob Elordi (pretty much everything lately) and Simon Rex (Red Rocket) in what is easily the finest performance of his career, and we’ve really got something. If The Sweet East is Williams’ proof that he has ideas and abilities, his sophomore effort should be a real winner. Heads up, though, fans of clear-cut narrative? You might not wanna hang. The rest of you? This one will stick with you for days, and not just for the unexpected yet glorious musical moment in the opening act. The Sweet East plays at the CCA for one week only—March 1-7.


+Magnetically strange; Ryder is brilliant

-Tough to stick with at times; brings up issues it doesn’t explore well

The Sweet East

Directed by Wiliams

With Ryder, Rex, Edrbiri and Elordi

Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 104 min.

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