New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

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Review: ‘The Sweet East’ is a freewheeling, antagonistic epic

Sean Price Williams’ directorial debut features a joyful and occasionally grating journey through the East Coast.
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“The Sweet East” is directed by Sean Price Williams. (Courtesy of Utopia)

School-sponsored overnight trips are often iconic milestones for teenagers, with their moments of unrestricted mayhem and chaos. With a newfound sense of freedom, class clowns dial up the pranks, romances start to solidify and the dangers of an unfamiliar city seem enticing. 

Director Sean Price Williams’ “The Sweet East” kicks off with a similar trip as protagonist Lillian (Talia Ryder) bolts from her South Carolina high school’s senior trip to Washington D.C. Opening the film with Lillian in a cheap hotel, surrounded by smelly classmates, Williams offers a warning that the film has no qualms about diving into edgy waters.

The tagline of “The Sweet East” is “everything will happen” — a promise that it will never bore, even if it offends or exasperates. Williams pulls off a cinematic magic trick here, unspooling a ridiculous road trip story with as much subtlety as a car alarm in a suburb. With a screenplay that’s not afraid to touch on hot-button topics, Nick Pinkerton’s writing handles the nonsense of the film in a nimble manner.

Episodic and rambling, the film’s plot is full of enjoyable caricatures, unsavory circumstances and bizarre provocations. Lillian’s decision to run away from her peers is incited by a holdup at a pizza parlor where a fanatical gunman claims that there is a child trafficking ring in the restaurant’s basement. As what is essentially Pizzagate takes place, it doubles as a helpful reminder that “The Sweet East” is willing to meet conspiracies halfway, as long as it works for a good joke. Lillian then escapes with a group of anti-fascists, including the heavily pierced group leader Caleb (Earl Cave), and into the home of Lawrence (Simon Rex), a neo-Nazi professor with a Lolita complex. “The Sweet East” revels in audacious possibilities with its fast-paced scenes. 

In other words, it’s not a surprising directorial debut from Williams, a regular cinematographer for the Safdie brothers and Alex Ross Perry. Williams had a large hand in crafting “Her Smell” and “Good Time,” both of which are grimy, overwhelming movies that refuse to let up. “The Sweet East” is full of dingy locations like Lawrence’s home or a farm in the third act that are shot on 16 mm. 

Ryder’s performance as Lillian manages to convey a wry movie-star quality, making it obvious why she attracts the world’s least savory characters. Her thoughtful casting allows “The Sweet East” to take another turn, as Lillian ditches Lawrence and ends up as the leading lady in a revisionist period piece directed by Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris) and Molly (Ayo Edebiri). In a stroke of good timing, her hot-new-thing co-star is played by none other than current hot-new-thing Jacob Elordi, who imbues his character, Ian, with a lackadaisical magnetism. Much of the film captures Lillian’s ambivalence about –– or opportunistic responses to –– being desired. And, this is heightened when she’s on set, being yearned for as a partner, mistress and star. 

“Part of growing up is realizing that most men around you want something from you, and it’s also okay to want something from them,” Ryder said at the film’s Cannes premiere, according to George Fenwick on Letterboxd — and Lillian embodies this attitude perfectly.

The strength of Pinkerton’s script is just how unbelievably packed it is –– alien monsters, obvious, funny green screen shots, a group of Muslim guys really into electronic dance music –– without ever feeling overstuffed. There’s surprising, if subtle, insight into being a young woman, along with a soupy mess of ideas about power, relationship dynamics and fame.

But Pinkerton is most focused on taking charged topics and having a laugh with them. This sets “The Sweet East” up for occasional moments of unbridled edginess — but it’s almost never cynical, as the film has sympathy towards even its worst characters. It’s an unbelievable, Trump-era comedy that accurately captures living in hyperbolic times, aided by an unmatched ease with which Pinkerton deploys hilarious new characters and “icky” situations.

“The Sweet East” is now showing at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village.

Contact Ethan Beck at [email protected].

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