The Sweet East (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)
THE SWEET EAST (2023)
Starring Talia Ryder, Earl Cave, Simon Rex, Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, Jacob Elordi, Rish Shah, Gibby Haynes, Andy Milonakis, Nichole Byron, Jordan Nessinger, Jack Irv, Khalil Amonette, Cameron Andre, Betsey Brown, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Peter Buntaine, Kaili Corcoran, Volkan Eryaman, Adam Friedland, Jamie Granato and Emmy Harrington.
Screenplay by Nick Pinkerton.
Directed by Sean Price Williams.
Distributed by Utopia. 104 minutes. Not Rated.
Screened at the 2023 Philadelphia Film Festival.
The Sweet East is certainly interesting, exciting and complex, with lots of action and some very funny dialogue and situations. So why didn’t I like it more than I did?
It tells the story of Lillian (Talia Ryder), a very pretty high school student who is on a trip to Washington DC with her class and her boyfriend. She’s obviously having a terrible time – she’s fighting with her boyfriend and her classmates are kind of asses – and when a gunman walks into a club they are at she is able to escape.
She takes this opportunity to not only escape the gunman, but to escape her old life. She impulsively runs off with a bunch of punks she met at the club, starting a voyage where she slips from adventure to adventure, with lots of different people, and tries to reinvent herself.
She runs across all sorts of bad men (and women) from all ends of the spectrum – party animals, Q-Anon followers, anarchist punks, neo-Nazis, pretentious indie filmmakers, a British film heartthrob, kidnappers, gay jihadists, even an ostentatious preacher (who is played by Gibby Haynes, lead singer of the Butthole Surfers, of all people…).
The Sweet East is the first directing job by Sean Price Williams, who has long been a well-respected cinematographer. (Previous films he lensed like Golden Exits and Her Smell played during previous years at the Philadelphia Film Festival.) Williams has worked previously with the Safdie Brothers – but thankfully had nothing to do with their biggest hit, Uncut Gems, because I cannot stress enough how much I HATED that film.
However, while The Sweet East is certainly better than that movie, it has the same basic problem. None of its characters are even the tiniest bit likable. In fact, most are assholes.
Well, except perhaps for Lillian. Not that she is particularly nice either, but honestly, she’s an empty slate throughout. She seems to have no real belief system herself, except for survival mode. She fits in with all the weird and dangerous people she runs across naturally, using her charm to seem much nicer than she is. She doesn’t appear to buy into their extreme beliefs, but she never really counters them either, except for occasionally in a teasing manner. However, she is also selfish and thoughtless and uncaring of people’s feelings – there is a running gag of people chiding her for repeatedly using the term “retarded” derogatorily, and that is just one small example of her deep anti-social streak.
Lillian just floats like a leaf in the wind from one situation to another, no matter how potentially disastrous. She is all about herself. She uses her obvious beauty and a teasing sexual tension to extract what she can from these people, and then she is off to the next thing. And a wake of bedlam follows behind her.
Many of them, despite their often-abhorrent beliefs, may not even deserve the crap that she dumps on them in her quest for personal freedom. Take Lawrence (Simon Rex), who is a neo-Nazi college professor. And yes, his involvement in this cause – apparently, he’s deeply involved in a potential terrorist plot – makes it hard to feel that much sympathy for him.
However, just towards her, Lawrence is kind and doting and frankly wrapped around her little finger. He sometimes drops his hate speech into casual conversation, and she mostly ignores or dismisses it, but he gives her a place to live, buys her clothes, food, and takes her on an expensive trip, all because she asked for it or teased him. And yes, he’s way too old to be lusting after this young girl, but he is courtly in his feelings towards her. He doesn’t touch her and probably never would. However, she rips him off and leaves him for dead with his neo-Nazi cohorts.
Does he deserve it? Maybe. Probably, even. But who is she to make this decision? Particularly considering she never appears to really use the money she took, and that money leads to the deaths of several completely uninvolved people.
In fact, interestingly, those deaths – which make up the one true over-the-top “action-packed” sequence of the film – happens only about 2/3 of the way through the film. It’s obviously meant to be the show-stopper sequence – even though the violence is somewhat cartoonish – but it also points out how little action happens throughout the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, Lillian gets herself into a whole bunch of crazy problems with crazy people throughout the running time, but most of it seems a lot more muted.
Then the final shot in the film of Lillian – her reaction to a television report on a tragic occurrence which may or may not have involved people from her past – just makes the character even more inscrutable. Just like everyone else she has met in the film, the audience has no idea what the hell is really going on inside her head.
It’s certainly possible to make a good film with bad people, but The Sweet East feels like it is working so hard to be a hip and quirky cult film that it forgot to actually tell a story that people can care about.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2023 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 26, 2023.