Sean Price Williams, American cinematographer known for his usage of grain and natural/available lighting in his films, has turned to directing after over 50 indie feature films as a director of photography. Williams premiered his feature debut, The Sweet East, at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, which sees a high school girl traverse the east coast of the United States in an attempt to escape her mundane life. For all the chaos Williams’ debut offers, including a gun-man/conspiracy theorist (Andy Milonakis), a period piece actor (Jacob Elordi), and a kind neo-Nazi (Simon Rex), the film sets itself up as a wild journey through the armpits of America.
Talia Ryder stars as high school senior Lillian, who is so over her life and friends that she’ll do anything to break away to freedom. In comes a class trip to Washington D.C., where a gunman (Milonakis) opens fire in a restaurant bar demanding a confession about the basement’s underground pedophile ring. If anything, this sequence sets the stage for the havoc to come, but also jump-starts the commentary on the many problems facing the U.S. Lillian flees with a punk-rock activist under that very same basement, where we witness scattered toys and uncomfortable imagery that’ll make your stomach churn or let out a deep-gutted belly laugh — either of which would be an appropriate response.
As the film progresses, our main character finds herself encountering peculiar humans to the point at which she finds comfort (or enjoyment) in adopting new personalities to get by. Meeting Lawrence (Rex), for example, at a Nazi rally then opting to stay with him because she has no alternatives is just one of the long list of bad decisions the naive and impulsive Lillian makes. Through incorporating these encounters in his script, Williams and screenwriting partner Nick Pinkerton attempt to make a comment about how political ideals can overtake a person’s life to the point of them no longer seeming like a human — rather, they become a personified robot of regurgitated information.
It’s not a bad theme to explore by any means. However, the conversation around this concept ends faster than it begins thanks to Lillian, once again, making a bad decision to take advantage of the kindness of strangers for personal gain. Indeed, our main character seems to lack any sort of moral compass, but it brings to the fold a larger conversation, and perhaps the more interesting part of Williams’ debut. For as uninterested in everything as Lillian is, no matter the various personalities she meets or lectures she experiences, she refuses to take a stance on everything and lacks belief in anything. As a result, it is difficult for Lillian to determine who she wants to be or what she wants to do with her life outside feral expeditions.
This is where the film falters. There’s no true discussion or lessons learned for Lillian. Despite all her experiences, she seems to escape every situation unscathed and unaffected, which makes the feature a bit empty. If anything, The Sweet East acts as a mostly funny satire that provides decent enough entertainment at the expense of important commentary. But if there’s something to take away from it, it’s that Talia Ryder is a true star. Her performance as Lillian is phenomenal as she weaves in and out of her lies with ease and performs with an acute and intentional naivety that is charming yet agonizing (in a good way for this film).
If nothing else, it’s best to walk into Sean Price Williams’ feature debut, The Sweet East, as a satire decorated with light political and human commentary and wild excitement that never lets up. Be prepared for some offensive language, unhinged character behaviors, and a violent sequence that often feels like it’s incorporated for shock value. Beyond that, the film doesn’t say anything meaningful other than what’s presented on a surface level. However, there’s no denying the fun that can be had with it regardless.
The Sweet East premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival on May 18. The film is 104 minutes long and not yet rated.