The Sweet East review

The Sweet East is a fascinating satire of contemporary America

3 out of 5 stars

Can an American truly see their country from the outside? Do they even aspire to? Famed cinematographer Sean Price Williams (frequent Safdie and Alex Ross Perry collaborator) makes his feature debut with The Sweet East, a film penned by acerbic and incisive film critic Nick Pinkerton, which makes their case as a slice-of-life satire of contemporary America. The episodic film follows Lillian (Talia Ryder), a high school senior from South Carolina, on her journey across the nation as she meets various fringe characters.

The film, predictably, has a strong visual identity. It’s raw, handheld and dreamy in texture. It channels the anonymous repetition of the faux-analogue world of social media posts; grain dialled up to 11, a suggestion of authenticity in a world of phonies. Price’s work is shot on 16mm, and it’s shot well. It’s both inspired by and a critique of the faux gritty aesthetics emblematic of a particular post-Vice identity, finding beauty in the garish capitalist hellscape of contemporary America. 

The Sweet East’s look also evokes a sense of the liberation of the late ’60s and early ’70s Americana, when America’s underbelly was exposed to the light of day. It has that smoggy softness that feels symbolic of one of the great periods of American filmmaking, which has been replicated often but rarely feels authentic to the time. Reminiscent of Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point and Five Easy Pieces, the film captures the textures of an era that felt provocative and incisive but lacks in perspective. 

Price’s photography here and in his other collaborations captures a more significant emotional and intellectual quality of living in 2023 than the free-wheeling narrative he’s working with. His images have come to define an era in American independent filmmaking and have touched on realities beyond cinema. His voice is singular, influential and often copied, rarely replicated. But, as a first feature effort, the film feels bloated and ironic. It lacks a strong point of view beyond a tired streak of misanthropy in a world that feels post-disillusionment, where all dreams, hopes and community have long been squashed. 

the sweet east Talia Ryder
The Sweet East, starring Talia Ryder

It’s not to say that life doesn’t suck — it does — but as we follow Lillian through various set-pieces evoking the paranoid conspiracy of QAnon, Pizzagate and beyond, it’s unclear what we should take away from this mess. What led us to this point? Where are we headed? The film captures a sense of the chaos of modern life, an insane incoherence that fails to distinguish between the real and unreal, but to what end? Even The Scary of Sixty-First, a satirical horror film about Jeffrey Epstein that’s adjacent in tone and origins (the Dime Square scene), had a better sense of how the ironic paranoia of the post-Twitter world has set in, robbing us of sincerity, warmth and authenticity. 

Pinkerton’s script works at its best in capturing a deeply rooted hypocrisy embedded in his characters. Everyone speaks out of both sides of their mouth, and their goals are aligned with strengthening their image and status. Ayn Rand-style objectivism is so deeply set into the American experience that all manner of fringe communities and belief systems have long been marinating in the idea that everyone’s individual happiness counts above all other principles. Perhaps we should exchange Rand’s concept of happiness with “clout.”

He also has a talent for dialogue and one-liners, a mean and trollish sense of humour that transcends dull moments, though overall it only contributes to the empty vacuousness of the film’s tone. 

Ayo Edibiri The Sweet East
Ayo Edibiri (right) in The Sweet East

What’s truly frustrating is that the film has fleeting moments of brilliance. Much of the first act is poetic, free-wheeling and beautiful. Featuring a helicopter condom, an impromptu song and school trip antics shot on lo-fi cameras, the movie feels at its most fresh in this Gen Z “fuck the world” decadence. As the adult world corrupts Lillian’s school trip and hijacks her life, the movie grows increasingly less interesting. After the film takes a turn post-Pizzagate-style shoot-em-up, it still has occasional flashes of interest (thanks to the really vibrant cast, also including Ayo Edebiri, Jacob Elordi and Simon Rex), but they are less frequent and more unevenly paced. 

The Sweet East, though, is ambitious and compelling despite its messiness. Undeniably, stream-of-consciousness filmmaking tends to age well. As it attempts to capture one vision of America, it accidentally seems to stumble on other fundamental truths, thoughts and feelings that exist beyond what’s on screen, revealing a rather dark-sided perspective of the filmmakers, who seem beyond disillusioned, seeing the world as a hopeless joke. Nevertheless, they strike on a strain of the American experience that is truthful even if it’s stagnant, serving to uphold rather than challenge the status quo. If everything sucks and everyone sucks, then it’s pointless even to try. It’s a film that captures how rudderless pessimism is from an intellectual and social perspective. ■

The Sweet East (directed by Sean Price Williams)

The Sweet East opens exclusively at Cinéma du Parc on Friday, Jan. 12. Two Q&A session with screenwriter Nick Pinkerton will be held at the theatre (3575 Parc) on Jan. 12 and 13, at 7 p.m.

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