The name Sean Price Williams might have crossed your screening time with films like ‘The Color Wheel’ (dir. Alex Ross Perry, 2011) or ‘Good Time’ (dir. Benny and Josh Safdie, 2017). Perhaps you are even among the lucky ones to know his distinctive, well-textured cinematographic style. But behold, his debut directorial feature film, ‘The Sweet East’ —a frenetic, cynical tale on the leading subcultures of America—is out and wild, and it is absolutely mesmerizing.
Lilian, young, beautiful, and driven by boredom, deviates from her group while on a school trip to Washington, D.C., to embark on an explorative trip along the (guess) East Coast of the United States. Her journey kicks off in an obtrusively adult bar, where a hot and bothered, armed conspiracy theorist (played by the comedian and social media celebrity Andy Milonakis) disturbs the reflective moments of the heroine, demanding the supposed truth about the basement’s underground pedophile ring.
Lilian finds her way out through a secret opening in the bathroom of the bar (forgetting her phone by the toilet), following a freegan-like activist, Caleb. While they make their way out, we get to see evidence of children actually being held up in the basement. That is basically the opening scene of the narrative (quite indicative of what will follow): a comedian holding a gun, raging over violence with violence, while our gaze pans around some horrific reality, only to leave it behind. That’s pretty much all you need to know; ‘The Sweet East’ is set to give us an impression of what it means to come of age in contemporary America. And the concurrent oddity of this land.
Lilian will follow Caleb and casually infiltrate his punk group, following them to their anarchistic attempts. But soon enough, she will encounter her next guide into the wilds of this world; a well-educated neo-Nazi (played by the frighteningly funny Simon Rex), who is eager to take her in and treat her with all the ‘Lolita’-style respect. By this time, the tale is established as a story in chapters – of places and people Lilian will meet, consume, and leave, smoothly tied together by her running away.
All the long and, at points, confusing way, the young girl navigates a diverse set of subcultures that are promising her a place within their fail-safe, immersive, and opaque ideologies. One would think that each of her new stops is an opportunity to reinvent herself, to jump on a new identity (incidentally, Lilian introduces herself differently to all the characters she meets). But as the film makes its progress, Lilian’s profile appears stable. She is a malleable character, maybe random or questionable, nevertheless a determined, apathetic, and reactionary, set to remain disenchanted and uninvolved, with obscure intentions. As disaffected as an average young (American) adolescent probably is.
That is only one convenient and expected beauty of the film. Because, of course, along with Lilian, we, as her followers, find ourselves in the middle of a retrospective odyssey around the dominant subcultures and cults ruling America—that will look and feel like a dream you have while on high fever. Yet, the intentions are more satirical, geared towards the specific ethnographic context than the history of it. Or, more accurately, the attempt here is to step away from factual deliveries and instead give a subjective representation of how characters (with emphasis on this word, as they are still part of a fictional tale) like a supremacist professor will respond, for example, to an erotic image of an underage, or how he makes his bed (no spoiler ahead, but indeed this film has details like this, and they are delightful).
All the emerging figures hold a pinch of sarcasm (with no caricaturing intervening in the portrayal), and they open up windows of realities insensibly known (mainly to Americans, most likely), with apparent fictional and liberal takes. In a way that can only be a legitimate way, ‘The Sweet East’ is a sweet tribute to the overlooked conditions leading to a diversity of life principles, whether rightful or not, and the alienating predicaments of holding your individuality within the pool of lurking influences. This comes from a permissive perspective. Naturally, the film could also be perceived otherwise.
In this regard, Nick Pinkerton (independent film critic and programmer, here also on his screenwriting debut) delivered a balanced script, fluid and fierce, which is absolutely necessary for a film that aims to make overviewing claims about a range of underground cultures. But the film also contains a fair amount of freely spoken monologues as rants, reminiscent of the original examples of Independent American Cinema. Think of the seminal work of John Cassavetes (e.g., ‘A Woman Under the Influence’, 1978). This leads to a soothing watch, especially for someone consumed by the modern iterations of the genre that are mostly exhausted by feel-good attitudes, romanticized (and flattening) ideas, or dry humor.
What further solidifies ‘The Sweet East’ as a gem of today’s independent cinema is the consistency in the narrative style. Beyond the well-crafted script, the scenographic details provide generous side stories, making each chapter a visual study by itself that your eyes just cannot get enough of. A captivating interplay with the close-ups (the camera loves the angelic, deadpan face of Talia Ryder) that are enough to satisfy even the most hungry of the style.
Additionally, the grainy texture (Sean Price Williams couldn’t but shoot on 16mm film) and the orange and blue colors that dress the film ensure the dream state. This is the best analogy, I figured, to discern and digest all the references and symbolisms of this film (and there are only that many) without taking it more seriously than what is asked of you. But I am only a white European woman who never stepped foot in America, so what do I know?
Also, Read: Dream Scenario (2023) Movie Review
‘The Sweet East’ premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight section. I came across it within the program of the Leiden International Film Festival, which is a very fitting encounter, as this film festival holds a tradition for American Independent Cinema. The scheduled (theatrical) release is set on December 1st-so keep an eye out for it out there!