The Sweet East (2023) — Movie Review
- Dec 5, 2023
Williams and Pinkerton's 'The Sweet East' has been hailed as a strange, yet irresistible piece of cinema. It's a twisted amusement park ride through the American landscape, providing an experience that's as bizarre as it is enlightening. Even though it frequently attempts to be satirical, witty, or sharp, it doesn't consistently reach the clever heights it aspires toward.
In dissecting the strange narrative of 'The Sweet East', we fall into a rabbit hole. This film transforms an exploration of America's underbelly into an expose of the garbage of culture, shot with an almost obsessive attention to the grotesque. In one memorable opening scene, a high school trip to the Capitol Building is filmed reminiscently of a 'Fast & Furious' opening race, a camera lingering eerily on teenage bodies. Clearly, the film hopes to shock and disrupt, reminding audiences of an America that hasn't washed its hands.
As the story unfolds, we follow the extraordinary journey of Lillian (Talia Ryder), an autonomous high school student from South Carolina, who seems to find the most peculiar corners of America. Starting with a shooting incident at a pizzeria that chillingly mirrors the actual "Pizzagate" absurdity, the film then propels Lillian into the chaotic world of some unruly Maryland punks. From there, her adventures bring her next to an intensely talkative neo-Nazi (a character splendidly portrayed by Simon Rex) with an eerie fascination for Edgar Allan Poe and an intricate disdain for youth. Simon's character allows generous visitors to appear - the American flag, eerily resembling Michael Bay’s 'Transformers' franchise.
The film operates as an irate critique that finds Lillian lured into the influence of one outlandish and power-hungry character after another. As the object of their projections and objectifications, Lillian manages to rise above these attempts to control her. Ryder's unmindful and exceptional performance lends the character a compellingly elusive aura - her star quality is captured beautifully in a dreamy pop ballad she hums to herself.
As Lillian’s odyssey takes her throughout America, she encounters a diverse range of personalities, played by a strong ensemble cast featuring Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy O. Harris, and Jacob Elordi. Yet, despite their unique arcs, these characters tend to lose momentum and identity. The verbosity of Pinkerton's script eventually makes the narrative gimmicks come off as trite as the film advances, with the directorial attempts becoming increasingly smug.
The film holds exceptional scenes, one involving a wild shoot-out amid bizarre cartoonish noises. This specific scene balances well-executed surprise moments with impeccable comedy, a perfect reflection of Williams' daring style. Credit must be given for not resorting to cheap tricks like overtly non-PC dialogues for the edge.
Williams' rich background in photography for indie films (famed for his collaboration with the Safdie brothers, Alex Ross Perry, Michael Almereyda, and others) is visible in the confident use of soft lighting, distinctive color filters, and the unusual change in camera styles. Subtle nuances, like the use of a matte painting background arbitrarily or the mere sight of hairs in the gate, contribute to a distinct aura of grittiness. 'The Sweet East' holds the power to take you on a nostalgic journey with it's classic indie vibe, holding promising directorial prospects for a future that is brighter for Williams than for America itself.
7 / 10
In the zany yet piercing 'The Sweet East', Williams and Pinkerton offer a distorted, yet profound reflection of America, with humor and edginess as the vehicle for a nuanced yet unusual narrative.